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G.Z. v. Oil City Area School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 9, 2019

G.Z., by and through his natural parent and guardian, Stacey Figueroa, Plaintiff,
v.
OIL CITY AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This civil rights action was brought by G.Z. ("G.Z."), a minor, by and through his mother, Stacey Figueroa ("Figueroa"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. The Defendants in this action include the Oil City Area School District (the "School District") and three of its employees, i.e.: Principal Tammy Newman ("Newman") and teachers Kelly Zerbe ("Zerbe") and Jessica Rodriguez ("Rodriguez"). G.Z. asserts that, while he was enrolled as an elementary school student within the School District, he suffered racial harassment by his fellow students. G.Z. alleges that the Defendants' actions in response to his complaints about the harassment violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.[1]

         Pending before the Court is the Defendants' motion to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons that follow, the Defendants' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND [2]

         G.Z. is a nine-year-old child of Hispanic descent who resides with his mother, Figueroa, in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Second Amended Compl. ("SAC"), ECF No. 16, ¶¶4-5, 11-12. During the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, G.Z. was enrolled in the School District at Smedley Elementary School. SAC ¶¶ 16-17. The School District's racial demographic is 96% white, with Hispanics comprising only one percent of the population. Id. ¶13.

         G.Z. claims that, during the School Years 2016-17 and 2017-18, he was racially harassed by his peers. SAC ¶ 17. As an example, G.Z. alleges that five white children in his class (identified as "L.W.," "M.R.," "C.T.," "T." (last name unknown), and "C.S., ") referred to him as a "stinky African" or remarked that he "stunk because of the color of his skin." SAC ¶18. One of these same students pushed G.Z. down a flight of stairs and, on a separate occasion, hit G.Z. in the head with a ball. Id. ¶I9. Another student punctured G.Z.'s skin with a woodchip. Defendant Zerbe allegedly knew of these incidents but took no action. SAC ¶2O.

         After each incident of harassment, G.Z.'s father informed the school of what had taken place. SAC ¶23. This included emails to the superintendent, to Newman, and to G.Z.'s teacher on numerous occasions. Id. ¶24. When complaints were made to Newman, she responded that children were too young to understand the difference in race and color. Id. ¶25. When complaints were lodged about G.Z. being assaulted, Newman variously responded, "[M]aybe it was a mistake," "[M]aybe the child had bad aim," or "[M]aybe the child was initiating a game of dodgeball." Id. ¶26.

         On another occasion, a child who had previously been reported for bullying G.Z. jumped out of a bush and made intimidating faces at him. SAC ¶27. When the child realized that G.Z. was being walked to school by his mother, the child then smiled as if embarrassed. Id. After reporting this incident to Newman, G.Z.'s parents were told that "children sometimes make faces," and Figueroa "may have misunderstood." Id. ¶28. Newman also informed G.Z.'s parents' that there was nothing the school could do about their complaints if they did not report the alleged bullying on the day that it occurred. Id. ¶29.

         Dissatisfied with Newman's responses, G.Z.'s parents made complaints to the School District's superintendent, Patrick Gavin. SAC ¶3O. Gavin emailed G.Z.'s parents and informed them he would speak to Newman. Id. ¶31. After he did so, Newman called G.Z. to her office and scolded him for having a bad attitude. Id.

         In an effort to mitigate future problems, Gavin permitted G.Z.'s parents to select G.Z.'s teacher for the following school year. SAC ¶32. G.Z.'s parents specifically instructed the administration not to place G.Z. in the same classroom as L.W., the student primarily responsible for instigating the harassment. Id. ¶33. Despite this instruction, Newman placed G.Z. in the same classroom as L.W. Id. ¶34. Following this placement, L.W. continued to harass G.Z.. Id. ¶35.

         G.Z. claims that none of the administrators have addressed or disciplined the students harassing him, nor have any reports been written or filed, despite the fact that teachers have been aware of-or even witnessed--the verbal and physical assaults. SAC ¶¶36-37, 40. According to G.Z., Defendant Rodriguez discouraged him from reporting the harassment that other students inflicted on him, stating that it was "tattling." Id. ¶41. G.Z. thereafter stopped reporting instances of assaults to any teachers or administrators. Id. ¶43.

         Meanwhile, G.Z. was disciplined for minor infractions such as getting out of his seat or for alleged harassing conduct toward his white peers. Id. ¶¶38, 52. The disciplines have ranged from loss of recess to in-school suspension. Id. ¶39. On at least one occasion when Zerbe thought that G.Z. was behaving inappropriately, she made him face his desk towards the wall. Id. ¶2l. This segregation lasted for approximately one month and ended only after G.Z.'s parents complained to Newman about it. Id. ¶¶21-22. Zerbe never explained to G.Z.'s parents why she implemented this form of punishment. Id. ¶22.

         As a result of these events, G.Z. has suffered trauma, which he continues to address through therapy. Id. ¶45. This lawsuit followed.

         II. ...


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