United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
M.C., a minor, by and through her parents, R.C. and M.C.
PERKIOMEN VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al.
Parents and their first grade daughter with a speech and language impairment seek damages to remedy anxiety and emotional harm arising from a co-student's sexual touching of her on the school bus. While the sexual misconduct on the bus caused her anxiety, it did not manifest in educational harm. Federal courts require parents to exhaust a school district's due process review of allegations affecting children eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") because we understand school districts possess the expertise and experience to prospectively remedy these educational issues. A more difficult issue for districts and parents is assisting IDEA eligible students victimized by misconduct on a school bus that creates understandable anxiety and emotional harm but, fortunately, does not adversely affect the student's education.
Here, a co-student sexually abused first grader M.C. on a school bus in her first month of elementary school. Her parents immediately challenged the school district's several actions and inactions, including failing to separate M.C. from the co-student perpetrator at the same school. Eventually, the district moved the perpetrator off the bus but he stayed in the same elementary school. While advocating in numerous fora, the parents did not seek redress under IDEA's administrative due process procedures with the district. Instead, they filed this suit directly against the district and bus company approximately two (2) years after their daughter told them of the abuse on the bus, M.C. and her parents now seek monetary damages and other relief arising from: 1) the sexual abuse on the bus; and, 2) the district's failure to separate M.C. and the perpetrator after immediate knowledge of the abuse.
We find, given the non-educational misconduct on the bus and the district's alleged failure to separate M.C. and the co-student did not cause educational harm, the parents did not need to exhaust IDEA's due process hearing before invoking this Court's subject matter jurisdiction. Given the deference to the Complaint at this preliminary stage. Plaintiffs state a claim against the district but not against the bus company for violating federal disability laws. Plaintiffs state a negligence claim against the bus company. In the accompanying Order, we deny the District's motion to dismiss and grant in part the bus company's motion to dismiss.
I. FACTS PLEAD IN COMPLAINT
On October 8, 2012, M.C, then a first grader in Perkiomen Valley School District (the "District"), reported to her parents that a fellow student "Harry" had, over a period of time and on multiple occasions, exposed himself to her, pulled down her underwear and touched her private parts on the bus owned and operated by Defendant Student Transportation of America, Inc. ("STA"). M.C. is an eligible student under the IDEA as a result of her Speech/Language impairment. At the time, Harry sat in an assigned seat on the bus and allegedly concealed his misconduct behind an open umbrella.
The next day, M.C.'s parents contacted the District's principal several times reporting that Harry had molested M.C. and informed the District that Harry may have molested another student while on a play date at the student's house. The District told M.C.'s mother that the situation would be "dealt with" but there were no plans to remove Harry from the bus. Thereafter, the District assigned an adult aide to Harry on the bus. In the interim, M.C.'s mother drove her to school. Eventually, the District removed Harry from the bus.
M.C.'s parents also filed a police report with the Pennsylvania State Police concerning Harry's misconduct. Eventually, the State Police closed the criminal investigation took no further action. The District told the Plaintiffs that "the absence of further action was due to the ages of the children involved."
Within two weeks, M.C.'s mother asked the District to transfer Harry out of M.C.'s school for her protection. The District declined this request. The District allegedly did not tell M.C.'s parents that, under its policy concerning sexual abuse, M.C. could have transferred schools within ten (10) days of the reporting of the incident. M.C.'s mother also spoke to other District officials who allegedly characterized the contact by Harry as "typical behavior" or that "some kids play doctor".
M.C. blamed herself for Harry's conduct and believed that her mother did not love her anymore and that her mother loved her siblings more. M.C. suffered with bouts of crying, nightmares and lack of sleep. While the District assured M.C.'s parents that Harry would have no further contact, the two children remained in the same school building and M.C. saw him nearly every day. In addition, on one occasion, Harry chased M.C. in the playground. He also stood next to M.C. in a parent pickup line and asked M.C. if she liked his new shoes and otherwise spoke to M.C. during a fire drill. On another occasion, Harry took M.C.'s jump rope away from her at recess. On another occasion, Harry, unaccompanied by any adult, appeared outside the girls' bathroom. In January 2013, M.C.'s mother told the District's Principal about the continuing trauma. M.C.'s mother also reported that Harry had pulled down his pants and underpants at recess to another student.
On April 13, 2013, much later in M.C.'s first grade year curriculum, Harry sat next to M.C. watching a video and M.C. went and sat at her desk. The District later removed Harry from the room. M.C.'s mother again reported this incident to the District the next day.
In late 2013, Dr. Nancy Bloomfield, a Pennsylvania licensed school psychologist, performed an independent psychological evaluation of M.C, reporting that M.C. was traumatized by the abuse and subsequent events. Dr. Bloomfield concluded that M.C.'s experience of being molested on the bus by a fellow student, and her continued exposure to him, had a significant impact on her, including an anxiety disorder and continuing struggles with the trauma.
M.C. transferred to a different school within the District for her 2013-2014 school year. However, M.C. continues to suffer from the alleged trauma and nightmares. She continued to associate the name Harry with trauma and feared that Harry would attempt to touch her again. As plead, M.C. suffered, and continued to suffer, physical and psychological symptoms caused by the Harry's conduct and its ...