Lawsuit claims Philly charter school suspended student after she was sexually assaulted

A federal lawsuit charges that Mastery Charter Schools mishandled a sexual assault at Pastorius-Richardson Elementary in North Philadelphia. (Google Maps)

A federal lawsuit charges that Mastery Charter Schools mishandled a sexual assault at Pastorius-Richardson Elementary in North Philadelphia. (Google Maps)

A new federal lawsuit alleges that Philadelphia’s largest charter company failed to properly investigate a sexual assault inside one of its schools. The claim suggests the network has systemic deficiencies in its treatment of sexual assault cases.

Mastery Charter Schools  — which runs 24 schools and educates 14,000 students in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — denied the claims and said the lawsuit is based on an “incorrect set of facts.”

The case centers on a 2016 incident in Mastery’s Pastorius-Richardson Elementary, located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

After an eighth grade boy and seventh grade girl had a sexual encounter in the school auditorium, video of the encounter circulated among other students. Mastery suspended both students after concluding that the sex was consensual, but the female student alleges in a lawsuit that she did not consent to the encounter or to the video taken by her alleged assailant.

Her grandmother, who is her legal guardian, has now sued Mastery, claiming it failed to properly investigate the incident. She’s seeking unspecified damages.

“The school and its administrators sought to deflect blame for their own failures and made the determination, based on a bogus and faulty investigation, that the sexual incident was consented to by the 13-year-old girl and blamed her for the incident, further victimizing her in the process,” the lawsuit stated.

Case also subject of civil rights inquiry

But the narrative of the lawsuit goes further than the one incident and suggests there is a broader problem with how Mastery handles sexual assault cases.

The lawsuit says the charter network has “failed to take prompt and effective steps to address the sexual violence among its children and the hostile environment to which they were exposed.”

As proof, the lawsuit references a separate federal investigation that resulted in Mastery changing some of its procedures.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights conducted its own inquiry into the incident at Pastorius-Richardson. OCR found that Mastery should have investigated the incident as a potential discrimination case under Title IX, but did not have the proper protocol in place.

“Our investigation found that Mastery does not have Title IX grievance procedures,” OCR concluded in its report.

Mastery subsequently agreed to establish a Title IX grievance procedure, train Mastery employees in Title IX processes, and pay for the plaintiff’s counseling.

OCR did, however, say that Mastery “conducted a prompt and equitable investigation of the incident,” even if it fell short on the Title IX front.

According to OCR, the sexual encounter between the two students took place on May 27, 2016. OCR said the boy took a video of the encounter without the girl’s permission or knowledge.

An assistant principal at the Germantown school immediately heard rumors about the incident and the alleged video but said he was unable to corroborate those rumors.

On June 9, the same assistant principal received a video of the sexual encounter from a third student. He immediately reported the video to his supervisors and to the police, according to the  OCR report. He also reached out to the guardians of the eighth grade boy and seventh grade girl and met with them separately that same day.

The guardian of the seventh grade girl — who is now suing Mastery — declined to press charges against the boy.

The assistant principal told OCR that he left the meeting under the impression that the sexual encounter was consensual. Only later that summer, according to OCR, did the assistant principal learn that the girl’s family considered the encounter nonconsensual.

Mastery gave both students an eight-day suspension for “inappropriate sexual conduct.”

‘Incorrect set of facts’

Mastery stood by its decision in a statement.

“This incident marked a very unfortunate situation in which two students showed poor judgment, broke school rules and together made a mistake,” the statement read. “Respecting the privacy of the students involved, and with sensitivity toward their emotional well-being, we are not going to publicly discuss the details of what happened. We believe that through this civil proceeding it will quickly become evident that the lawsuit is built on an incorrect set of facts.”

The lawsuit, indeed, paints a different picture than the OCR report.

The plaintiff alleges that when she arrived at Pastorius-Richardson for the June 9 meeting, she saw the assistant principal watching the video with “other individuals that were gathered around him.” The assistant principal then told the plaintiff that he’d had the video “for about a week,” according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff said Mastery employees dismissed the incident as consensual even though her granddaughter was only 13 and had initially said “no” when propositioned by the boy. The plaintiff alleges that the eighth grade boy pulled up her granddaughter’s dress, pulled down her underwear, and sexually assaulted her in the school auditorium.

The girl transferred to a traditional public school, according to the lawsuit. She has since suffered from post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety, the suit claims.

The lawsuit also references two other alleged sexual incidents inside Pastorius-Richardson. It claims that, earlier in 2016, another seventh grade student was sexually assaulted in the lunchroom at Pastorius-Richardson. Mastery disputes the veracity that a second alleged sexual assault took place in 2016.

A 2008 Philadelphia Daily News article detailed another sexual encounter between students, this one consensual. Mastery did not yet operate Pastorius-Richardson when the Daily News wrote about the school in 2008.

An employee at another Mastery school in Philadelphia was sentenced to prison earlier this year for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student.

“The callousness with which Mastery handles sexual assault and harassment at its schools is horrific, including its failures to provide even the most basic of protections for young girls,” said Jason Pearlman, the lawyer for the plaintiff, in a statement.

The plaintiff’s lawyer did not make her available for an interview.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Mastery disputes that a second alleged sexual assault took place in 2016.

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