Pennsylvania children who endure harassment on the basis of their race or gender may soon find it easier to sue thanks to a recent decision by the state Supreme Court.
Overturning lower-court decisions, the Pa. Supreme Court ruled that minors have until six months after they turn 18 to initiate complaints that can lead to legal action regarding bullying or discriminatory harassment experienced as minors.
The state Commonwealth Court previously said complaints needed to be filed within six months of the actual incident, the same timeline that applies to adults.
Advocates say the ruling is a win for students and families, allowing them to better hold school districts accountable for discriminatory bullying that happens under their watch.
The complaint in this case stemmed from a brutal rape that occurred at William C. Bryant School in West Philadelphia in 2011. After a period of extended harassment — which included homosexual and racist slurs — three fourth-grade boys sexually assaulted one of their peers in a school bathroom.
The facts of the case are not under dispute. The question was whether the boy’s family could hold the School District of Philadelphia liable under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), a decades-old law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender and race.
The law requires that a plaintiff first seek relief through the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission before suing in court — and that a complaint must be filed within 180 days.
That tight window can cause complications in cases involving minors, advocates say. Students are often understandably reluctant to report bullying to their parents. And it can take considerable time before a conversation with parents translates into an attorney filing a formal complaint, said Kristina Moon, staff attorney at Education Law Center, which filed an amicus brief supporting the family’s appeal.
“That can take weeks or months,” said Moon. “To expect a child to report and for a parent to figure out how to file a complaint within the six-month timeline is unfair.”
In the case at Bryant elementary, the family did not file a complaint until more than two years after the assault.
In a 4-3 opinion released last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the family could still sue the School District of Philadelphia because the child was a minor when they filed their complaint.
Writing for the majority, Justice Debra Todd said an “overly restrictive interpretation” of the PHRA’s statute of limitations would undermine its purpose for minors, who are dependent on guardians and caretakers to initiate complaints.
“Simply stated, children, already some of our most vulnerable citizens, should not be subject to the whim or mercy of parents or guardians with respect to the assertion of their legal rights,” Todd wrote.
She added that a six-month complaint window “would be fatal to the rights of many children subjected to discrimination.”
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