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Bridges v. Scranton School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 6, 2014

SHARELLE BRIDGES and ANTHONY BRIDGES, on behalf of their son, D.B., a minor, and individually on their own behalf, Plaintiffs,

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For Sharelle Bridges, on behalf of their son, D.B., a minor, and individually on their own behalf, Anthony Bridges, on behalf of their son, D.B., a minor, and individually on their own behalf, Plaintiffs: Frederick M. Walton, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Harvey Pennington Ltd., Philadelphia, PA.

For Scranton School District, Defendant: Mark Joseph Kozlowski, Robin B. Snyder, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA.

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A. Richard Caputo, United States District Judge.

Presently before the Court is Defendant the Scranton School District's (the " District" ) Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 31.) Plaintiffs, D.B., a minor student, and his parents, Sharelle Bridges (" Mrs. Bridges" ) and Anthony Bridges (" Mr. Bridges" ) (collectively, " Plaintiffs" ), contend that D.B. was harassed and bullied by other students while he was in first grade and by his teacher while he was in second grade. Plaintiffs assert claims against the District for deprivation of their substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because the facts when viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs fail to establish a substantive due process or Title VI claim, the District's motion for summary judgment will be granted.

I. Background

D.B. attended first and second grade at two elementary schools within the Scranton School District. D.B. attended Francis Willard Elementary School for first grade, while he attended Robert Morris Elementary School for second grade. (Doc. 33, Defendant's Statement of Facts, " Def.'s SMF," ¶ 1; Doc. 50, Plaintiffs' Counterstatement of Facts, " Plfs.' CSF," ¶ 1.) D.B. attended Robert Morris for second grade following a move to a new home. ( Def.'s SMF, ¶ 27; Plfs.' CSF, ¶ 27.) Following his second grade year, D.B.'s parents enrolled him in Connections Academy, a cyber school in the Scranton School District. ( Def.'s SMF, ¶ 68; Plfs.' CSF, ¶ 68.) D.B. intends to stay at Connections Academy until he leaves for college. ( Def.'s SMF, ¶ 22; Plfs.' CSF, ¶ 22.) D.B. and his parents are African-American. ( Compl., ¶ 4-5; Def.'s Answer, ¶ ¶ 4-5.)

D.B. testified that he was bullied by other students on multiple occasions while he was in first grade at Francis Willard Elementary School. ( D.B. Dep., 30:18-32:13, 38:11-39: 21.) On one occasion, D.B.'s arm was twisted and he had to go to the hospital and get a cast. ( Id. at 31:18-32:2.) On another occasion, D.B. was jumped by two students and he was kicked and stomped while he was on the ground. ( Id. at 32:32:3-13.) D.B. also had to go to the hospital following that incident. ( Id.) A third incident in first grade involved D.B. being stabbed in the chest with a safety pin. ( Id. at 38:17-21.) Thereafter, the same student retaliated against D.B. by slamming him into a brick wall at school. ( Id. at 39:6-9.)

These incidents were all reported to the school principal, Ms. Leitzel. ( Id. at 39:23-40: 7.) Following these incidents, D.B.'s classroom was changed. ( Id.) Mrs. Bridges testified that D.B.'s classroom was changed three or four times that year, and

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Ms. Leitzel did that to make D.B. comfortable. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 40:9-22.) After D.B. was moved classrooms, he might still be shouted at or hit, but he was no longer jumped. ( Id. at 41:6-12.) According to Mr. Bridges, there were two meetings with Ms. Leitzel about D.B. being bullying while he was in first grade. ( Mr. Bridges Dep., 18:8-20:13, 105:8-106:17.) Following the first meeting, Ms. Leitzel indicated that the instances of bullying would be investigated. ( Id. at 19:16-20:5.) Ms. Leitzel testified that she recalled investigating incidents involving D.B. on the playground, but she never reduced her investigations to writing. ( Ms. Leitzel Dep., 21:825.) Ms. Leitzel also testified that D.B. was friends with the boys involved in those incidents. ( Id. at 19:3-20:14.) Ms. Leitzel indicated that her investigations revealed that D.B. was also " hands-on with the boys," and she disagreed with characterizing D.B. as having been " attacked" or " jumped." ( Id.)

D.B. testified that he was also bullied by other students on one occasion in second grade. ( D.B. Dep., 27:9-29:14.) In that case, D.B. was out on the playground, when two students approached him and then two more students came from the other direction and jumped him. ( Id.) D.B. fought them off by kicking one student and punching another student. ( Id.) The other two students ran off. ( Id.) Following that incident, D.B.'s teacher, Mrs. Wilcha, gave him detention, but no detention was given to the other students that started the fight. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha asked the other students what happened and their side of the story, but D.B. never got the opportunity to explain his side of the story. ( Id.) D.B. got detention as a result of that incident. ( Id.) Also while D.B. was in second grade, another student tried to jab him in the eye with a pencil during class. (D.B. Dep., 41:20-42:2.) Mrs. Wilcha, D.B. testified, did nothing in response to that incident. ( Id.)

In addition, D.B. testified that he was bullied on a number of occasions while he was in second grade by Mrs. Wilcha. Mrs. Wilcha, however, disputes the contention that she bullied or harassed D.B. In his second grade class, D.B. was the only African-American student, and there was one biracial student. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 132:5-11.)

According to D.B., Mrs. Wilcha threw or flung his desk on the floor on two occasions. ( D.B. Dep., 18:12-19:2.) And, on a third occasion, Mrs. Wilcha turned the desk over, shook everything out of it, and yelled at D.B. to pick his things up. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha, however, testified that she never turned over his desk. ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 60:14-18; 152:13-16.)

D.B. also testified that Mrs. Wilcha was very mean to him while he was in second grade. ( D.B. Dep., 18:10.) D.B. indicated that Mrs. Wilcha would unfairly give him detention. ( Id. at 19:3-12.) She would also write his name on the board for no reason, such as when his name was put on the board because he brought in a snack that Mrs. Wilcha did not like. ( Id. at 22:3-19.) Mrs. Wilcha testified, though, that his name was never written on the board for having an unhealthy snack. ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 47:5-14.) Mrs. Wilcha did recall that D.B.'s name, as well as the names of other students, were placed on the chalkboard during that year pursuant to her behavior plan. ( Id. at 56:12-20.) And, Mrs. Wilcha remembered giving other students detention that year, and she recalled giving another student numerous detentions during that school year. ( Id. at 154:6-11.)

D.B. further testified that he was verbally abused by Mrs. Wilcha, and she called him a " dummy," " stupid," and " lazy." ( D.B. Dep., 34:15-36:11.) This happened

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on two occasions. ( Id.) On one instance, D.B. answered a question incorrectly, and Mrs. Wilcha asked if he was stupid. ( Id.) On the second occasion, Mrs. Wilcha was going around the class and she just referred to D.B. as stupid. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha, D.B. testified, never said that to any other students. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha denied that she ever called D.B. dumb or stupid. ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 56:7-11.)

D.B. also testified that Mrs. Wilcha made him sit by the window. ( D.B. Dep., 44:3-15.) In the winter, D.B. indicated that Mrs. Wilcha would leave the window open so he could freeze, while when it was hot outside she would keep the window closed. ( Id.)

D.B. also recalled a time during second grade when he sprained his ankle and had crutches. ( D.B. Dep., 24:23-26:3.) D.B. had the crutches for about two weeks. ( Id.) One time, Mrs. Wilcha ordered another student to get the crutches and put them in the back of the room. ( Id.) Later that day when D.B. needed the crutches, nobody got them for him. Instead, he had to crawl on the floor to get his crutches. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha recalled D.B. having crutches. ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 117:10-119:3.) According to Mrs. Wilcha, D.B.'s crutches were resting against a counter and they kept falling. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha instructed another student to put them in a corner about three or four feet from D.B.'s desk, and stated that they would get the crutches for D.B. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha stated that this was done as a safety precaution. ( Id.)

Mrs. Bridges testified that D.B. was harassed in second grade by Mrs. Wilcha with respect to a food allergy. Specifically, D.B. had a strawberry allergy and Mrs. Bridges had a concern about his exposure to strawberries during second grade. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 132:17-139:21.) Although D.B.'s strawberry allergy was noted in his school planner and Mrs. Bridges testified that she had completed an information card identifying his allergy, students were permitted to bring strawberries to class and eat them around her son. ( Id. at 135:4-11, 137:1-2.) Mrs. Bridges raised this issue with Mrs. Wilcha and Ms. Damiano, the school principal, but they indicated that they were unaware of D.B.'s allergy. ( Id. at 136:20-138: 3.) Mrs. Bridges filled out an information card again indicating D.B.'s allergy, but there continued to be issues with strawberries, as Mrs. Wilcha continued to allow students to have strawberry products. ( Id. at 138:11-139:15.) This, Mrs. Bridges testified, was in contrast to how Mrs. Wilcha handled another student's allergy to peanuts. ( Id.) One time, Mrs. Bridges sent D.B. to school with a peanut butter cup, and Mrs. Wilcha sent a letter home stating that D.B. could not bring snacks with peanut butter because a classmate had a peanut allergy. ( Id.) Mrs. Wilcha testified that she was unaware that D.B. had a strawberry allergy until it was brought up by Mrs. Bridges. ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 106:4-9.) Mrs. Wilcha further testified that even though D.B.'s strawberry allergy was identified in his school planner, it was on a page towards the beginning of the planner that she had not viewed. ( Id. at 110:5-7.) Ms. Damiano also did not know if the allergy was marked in D.B.'s student planner because that was not something she would look at. ( Ms. Damiano Dep., 91:18-22.) Ms. Damiano further testified that when the issue about the strawberry allergy first arose, there was no documentation or yellow card with the nurse indicating that D.B. had such an allergy. ( Id. at 92:10-94:7.)

Mrs. Bridges attended three or four meetings with Mrs. Wilcha and Ms. Damiano while D.B. was in second grade. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 46:11-24.) Mrs.

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Bridges attended those meetings with her mother, and on one occasion, Mr. Bridges also was in attendance. ( Id.) The first meeting took place on October 3, 2011. ( Id. at 50:7-18.) That meeting pertained to D.B.'s behavior in class. ( Id. at 52:5-9.) Mrs. Bridges requested a class change for D.B., but Ms. Damiano would not change his class. ( Id. at 56:12-57:22.) Mrs. Bridges also testified that Mrs. Wilcha referred to D.B. as a " gabber" at that meeting and that she had to move his desk a few times because she believed he could not see the board and needed glasses. ( Id. at 52:16-53:16.) D.B. attended that meeting, and when he tried to explain himself, Mrs. Wilcha put her hand in his face, indicating that he be quiet. ( D.B. Dep., 23:5-20.)

The second meeting took place on October 12, 2011, and Mrs. Bridges attended it with her mother and husband. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 58:15-17, 59:11-13.) The purpose of that meeting was to look at D.B.'s educational record, and they sat in the library and reviewed D.B.'s records. ( Id. at 59:14-22.) Mrs. Bridges also indicated that Mrs. Wilcha again referred to D.B. as very talkative, a " gabber." ( Id. at 60:1-6.) According to Mrs. Bridges, she did not tell Ms. Damiano at either that meeting or the October 3, 2011 meeting that Mrs. Wilcha was bullying D.B. ( Id. at 65:19-25.)

Mrs. Bridges believes that a third meeting took place on November 20, 2011. ( Id. at 47:9.) Ms. Damiano, however, testified that she did not have a meeting with the Bridges in November 2011 because she did not have any notes documenting such a meeting. ( Ms. Damiano Dep., 65:25, 82:16-19.) Mrs. Wilcha similarly testified that if there was a meeting in November 2011, there would be a sign-in sheet documenting that meeting. ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 87:12-14.)

The final meeting between Mrs. Bridges, Mrs. Wilcha, and Ms. Damiano took place on April 26, 2012 at Mrs. Bridges' request. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 66:23-67:1.) At that meeting, they discussed D.B.'s academic progress, that he was talkative in class, and the discipline reports that had been sent home. ( Id. at 67:2-19.) Mrs. Bridges testified that she did not tell Ms. Damiano that D.B. was being bullied by Mrs. Wilcha at that meeting. ( Id. at 76:13-16.) However, Mrs. Bridges testified that she stated in front of Ms. Damiano that Mrs. Wilcha threw D.B.'s desk on three occasions. ( Id. at 76:20-77:16.) Mrs. Bridges further testified that Mrs. Wilcha denied throwing the desk, and that Ms. Damiano indicated that she did not believe that Mrs. Wilcha would do such a thing. ( Id.) Ms. Damiano testified that she did not recall this issue being discussed at the April 26, 2012 meeting. ( Ms. Damiano Dep., 105:10-16.) Mrs. Wilcha was similarly unable to recall if the turning over of D.B.'s desk was discussed during the April 26, 2012 meeting, ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 104:11-15), and she denied ever turning over D.B.'s desk. ( Id. at 60:11-25, 152:13-16.) Mrs. Bridges also confirmed that other than the desk throwing, she never told Mrs. Wilcha or Ms. Damiano at any meeting that she believed D.B. was being bullied. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 147:5-14.)

Lastly, Mrs. Bridgers and her mother had a meeting with Louis Paris (" Mr. Paris" ) on June 8, 2012. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 94:4-10.) Although Mrs. Bridges had intended to meet with the District superintendent, she instead met with Mr. Paris, the head of the elementary school. ( Id. at 94:11-15.) At that meeting, Mrs. Bridges expressed her concerns with D.B. being bullied by Mrs. Wilcha. ( Id. at 95:20-101:12.) Mrs. Bridges explained the incidents with the desk throwing, her concerns

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that D.B. was being unfairly punished, and that she called him a " dummy" and " stupid." ( Id.) Mrs. Bridges also indicated that she did not want D.B. to finish the final two weeks of school because he was scared, but Mr. Paris stated that he had to attend school because it was a truancy issue. ( Id.) Mr. Paris also informed Mrs. Bridges at the meeting that he could provide a boundary exception because D.B. no longer wanted to attend Robert Morris. ( Id.) Mr. Paris further stated that he would take care of the problem and get in contact with her after the meeting. ( Id.) Following that meeting, Mr. Paris called Mrs. Bridges, and he also sent a letter including a boundary exception form. ( Id. at 100:10-101:12.) That was the last time Mrs. Bridges spoke to Mr. Paris, and she never attempted to call back to the school to talk to Mr. Paris or William King (" Mr. King" ), the school superintendent. ( Id. at 102:12-17.) Mrs. Bridges further testified that, outside of mentioning the desk throwing incidents to Mrs. Wilcha and Ms. Damiano at the April 26, 2012 meeting, her conversation with Mr. Paris on June 8, 2012 was the first time she expressed concerns to anyone about bullying. ( Id. at 147:5-18.)

According to Mrs. Bridges, while D.B. was in Mrs. Wilcha's class, he began to have nightmares, he started wetting the bed, and he was frequently blinking. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 14:12-15:14.) A psychiatric evaluation of D.B. notes that he developed anxiety and depressive symptoms in reaction to the issues he went through during his second grade year. (Doc. 50, Ex. M.)

During the summer following D.B.'s second grade year, the Bridges decided that D.B. would attend Connections Academy. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 103:5-20.) They made that decision because they felt it would be safer for D.B. ( Id.)

In September 2012, Ms. Damiano and Mr. Struzzieri, the District's truancy liaison for Children and Youth Services, came to the Bridges' house. ( Mrs. Bridges Dep., 110:13-17.) According to Mrs. Bridges, Mr. Struzzieri asked what school D.B. was attending because he had missed twenty-three or twenty-four days of school. ( Id. at 112:22-113:6.) Mrs. Bridges replied that she had withdrawn D.B. the prior month and to contact the administration office. ( Id.) Ms. Damiano recalled visiting the Bridges' house with Mr. Struzzieri. ( Ms. Damiano Dep., 109:9-20.) According to Ms. Damiano, D.B. had never been withdrawn and that he continued to show up on their rolls. ( Id. at 109:21-24.) Ms. Damiano, however, was unaware at that time that the Bridges had completed a withdrawal form. ( Id. at 110:18-111:3.)

During D.B.'s first and second grade years, the District had a bullying policy. (Docs. 34; 35.) The policy was the same for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years. ( Mr. King Dep., 74:1-20.) Although the bullying policy focused mainly on student-on-student bullying, ( id. at 28:4-29:10), the policy also contained language addressing employees, ( id.), and Mrs. Wilcha and Ms. Damiano understood the policy to also apply to teacher-on-student bullying. ( Mrs. Wilcha Dep., 126:20-23; Ms. Damiano Dep., 33:5-34:24.)

In view of the foregoing events, Plaintiffs commenced this action against the District on December 18, 2012. ( Compl.) In Count I of the Complaint, D.B., Mrs. Bridges, and Mr. Bridges assert a claim for the deprivation of their substantive due process rights. Count II of the Complaint sets forth a claim for violation of Title VI ...

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