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Strobel v. Neshannock Township School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 26, 2018

SARAH STROBEL, by and through her parents and natural guardians, TRACY STROBEL and BRIAN STROBEL, Plaintiff,



         Pending before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (hereinafter "SJM," Doc. 147) filed by Defendants Neshannock Township School District (the "District"), and Tracy McCalla, Luca Passarelli, Lesley Herman, Jeanne Pursel, Lina Busin, and Anita Slater (the "Individual Neshannock Defendants" or the six "chaperones") (all collectively, the "Neshannock Defendants").[1] For the reasons below, the Neshannock Defendants' SJM will be granted in part as to all claims arising under federal law. The remaining state law claims will be dismissed without prejudice, and the Court will dismiss the remainder of this action, as the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims.


         This lawsuit arises from an appalling event. A group of students sexually assaulted Plaintiff Sarah Strobel ("Plaintiff), while she slept, on a return bus ride from a Neshannock High School field trip. (See generally Plaintiffs Responsive Concise Statement of Material Facts, hereinafter "Plaintiffs Facts," Doc. 159.) The lawsuit also stems from the Neshannock Defendants' response to this event, which Plaintiff argues enabled her subsequent harassment by one of the students involved in the assault. (Id. at ¶¶ 118-24; Plaintiffs Brief Opposing Neshannock Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment 13-15, hereinafter "Plaintiffs Brief," Doc. 158.) The relevant series of events follows.

         I. The Assault

         Approximately 48 high school freshmen and the six chaperones, who served as teachers and administrators at the District, attended a class field trip to New York City from April 25 to April 27, 2013. (Plaintiffs Facts ¶¶ 1-3.) Prior to the trip, Defendant Tracy McCalla ("McCalla"), the District Junior High School Principal and a chaperone, discussed matters of security and school rules with the other chaperones and the students. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-5.) The trip had been anticipated for over a year. (Id. at ¶ 114.)

         On the ride home from New York, the chaperones sat together at the front of the bus, and occasionally walked up and down the aisle. (Id. at ¶¶ 14, 34.) Plaintiff fell asleep on the bus after dinner while listening to music; her seatmate fell asleep as well.[3] (Id. at ¶¶ 16-17.) Near the end of the drive, sometime between 12:15 a.m. and 12:45 a.m., Plaintiff awoke with a blanket over her head and Defendants Tiara Saado ("Saado") and George Root ("Root") touching her vaginal region over her pants and her buttocks under her pants. (Id. at ¶ 18; Plaintiffs Brief 2.) Two other students, Defendants Anthony Staph ("Staph") and David Ross ("Ross"), also participated in the assault. (Plaintiffs Facts ¶¶ 32, 38, 43.) Prior to the assault, Plaintiff had not had any problems with these students, and these students had not been disciplined for any prior incident involving improper touching or sexual misconduct. (Id. at ¶¶ 51-55.)

         The chaperones and the District were not aware of the assault until several hours later on April 27, 2013, when Plaintiffs mother reported the incident to the District. (Id. at ¶¶ 23-28.) That same day, McCalla spoke with the other chaperones, who advised McCalla that they were not aware of the incident. (Id. at ¶ 30.) Two days later, on Monday morning, the District and the Neshannock Township Police Department began their respective investigations. (Id. at ¶ 31.) Based on the District's investigation and informal hearings, Saado, Staph, and Root were suspended, and the District later entered into agreements in lieu of expulsion with those students and their parents that prohibited the students from having any direct or indirect contact with Plaintiff until the commencement of the next school year. (Id. at ¶¶ 39-42.) Ross was not disciplined, despite evidence of his involvement, and was in class with Plaintiff upon her return to school. (Id. at ¶¶ 43-45, 49; Plaintiffs Brief 3.) However, Ross and Root did not return to the District for their sophomore year. (Plaintiffs Facts ¶¶ 63-64.) After returning to school for one and half days after the assault, Plaintiff requested and received approval for homebound instruction for the remainder of her freshman year. (Id. at ¶ 50.)

         II. The Harassment

         Prior to Plaintiffs sophomore year, Plaintiff, her mother, and the District developed a plan to transition Plaintiff back into the school building. (Id. at ¶ 57.) The plan included accommodations to limit Plaintiffs contact with the student Defendants; for example, Plaintiff would not have classes scheduled with these students, would receive preference for lunch period seating, would receive an unrestricted hall pass, would have unlimited access to the guidance and nurse's offices, and would be allowed to request homebound status at any time, during which time the District would provide a teacher for in-home instruction and assignments. (Id. at ¶ 58-60.)

         Despite this plan, Plaintiff had three encounters with Saado before graduating.[4] During their sophomore year, Saado came to speak with other girls at Plaintiffs lunch table in violation of the terms of Saado's probation. (Id. at ¶ 62.) Defendant Luca Passarelli ("Passarelli"), the Senior High School Principal, investigated the lunch table incident, confirmed that Saado did not speak to Plaintiff, and instructed Saado not to approach Plaintiffs lunch table again. (Id. at ¶¶ 77-80.)

         Plaintiff had a second contact with Saado at the beginning of her junior year, when she saw Saado, a member of the tennis team, while attending a tennis match to take photographs for the yearbook. (Id. at ¶¶ 82-85.) Saado did not speak to Plaintiff or approach her, but directed threatening gestures toward Plaintiff; Plaintiff had been told by a friend that Saado might harm her physically if she were to attend. (Id. at ¶ 86.) After Plaintiff reported the incident, Passarelli spoke to Saado, but Saado was not disciplined for these actions. (Id. at ¶ 87.)

         Plaintiffs third and final contact with Saado occurred when Saado entered a public restroom at the District, and went directly to a stall, while Plaintiff was washing her hands. (Id. at ¶ 88.) Passarelli again investigated this incident but took no action. (Id. at ¶ 90.)

         Other than these contacts, there were times when Plaintiff became aware, through her friends, that Saado was spreading rumors about her at school, including that Plaintiff had lied about the assault, was pregnant, and had sexually transmitted diseases. (Id. at ¶¶ 94, 99; Exhibit B to Plaintiffs Facts 23, 55, Doc. 161-2.) In August 2014, while Plaintiff remained at the high school, Plaintiffs mother notified the District that Plaintiffs friend had told Plaintiff that Saado would "lay [Plaintiff] out" if Saado saw her. (Id. at ¶ 95.) Plaintiffs mother also notified the District about the rumor that Plaintiff had lied about the assault in September 2014. (Id. at ¶ 99.) Passarelli investigated these incidents by interviewing students, but the interviews failed to corroborate that Saado had spread rumors or made threats. (Id. at ¶¶ 96-102.)

         Plaintiff left school for homebound instruction on October 8, 2014, near the beginning of her junior year, and she became aware later that month, also through a friend, that Saado had asked Plaintiff s friend whether Plaintiff was pregnant. (Id. at¶¶ 104-105.) Plaintiff s mother informed the school of this conduct, which was investigated and confirmed by Passarelli. (Id. at ¶¶ 106-108.) Again, Passarelli took no further disciplinary action. (Id. at ¶¶ 109, 124.) Plaintiff completed high school through homebound instruction, college courses, independent study, and one class at the high school, graduating in 2016. (Id. at ¶¶ 110-113.)


         Plaintiffs Amended Complaint (Doc. 141) states a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the Individual Neshannock Defendants for violating Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment right to personal security and bodily integrity by virtue of a state-created danger; a claim against the District for violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 ("Title IX"), by enabling Plaintiffs assault and sexual harassment through deliberate indifference; and a second 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the District for failing to train and supervise the chaperones, resulting in the above constitutional violation.[5] (See generally Amended Complaint.) Several student and parent Defendants-Anthony Staph and his parents, Anthony and Shellie Staph; Tiara Saado and her parent, Elena Colia; and George Root and his parents, George and Tina Root-have also asserted crossclaims against the Neshannock Defendants, which state generally that the Neshannock Defendants may be liable for all or part of the claims asserted against the students and parents.[6] (See Docs. 6, 74, 75, 112, 113.)

         The Neshannock Defendants move for Summary Judgment on all claims asserted against them, including the crossclaims above. (Doc. 147.) As to the state-created danger claims against the Individual Neshannock Defendants, Defendants argue that Plaintiff has failed to produce evidence that would allow a jury to find all the necessary elements for liability, and that the Individual Neshannock Defendants have qualified immunity for these claims. (Neshannock Defendants' Brief in Support of SJM 6-9, 23-24, hereinafter "SJM Brief," Doc. 151.) As to the Title IX claim against the District, Defendants argue that the assault was an isolated event, that the District responded reasonably to the assault and to Plaintiffs subsequent complaints of harassment, that the incidental contact with Saado and the rumors do not constitute harassment, and that Plaintiffs experience of harassment was not sufficiently severe as to deny Plaintiff equal access to education. (Id. at 15-22.) Finally, as to the failure ...

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