After more than five years of alleged anti-LGBT bullying, a local family is suing their daughter’s former school district.
Russell and Tammy Bittenbender filed a complaint Dec. 4 in federal court in Philadelphia against the Bangor Area School District for failing to adequately address the alleged sexual harassment and physical assault. The district is about a half-hour northeast of Bethlehem.
The suit alleges the bullying began in third grade, when the Bittenbenders’ daughter was 9, and created a “hostile environment” that caused “her to ultimately consider killing herself.”
Classmates and older students told the girl, “Lesbian, why don’t you go hang yourself?” and told others, “If you hang around with her, you’ll catch lesbian diseases from her,” according to court documents.
“I do not have much to say at this point because I have not yet talked in detail about the situation to the administration, nor have I discussed it with the school board,” Donald F. Spry, solicitor for Bangor schools, wrote in an email to PGN.
Spry added that the board is not scheduled to meet this month.
A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for February, with Judge Lawrence F. Stengel presiding.
The district will be represented by John E. Freund 3d.
The suit seeks at least $150,000 in damages, which is the threshold necessary to ask for a jury trial in federal court, according to Jason Schiffer, the Bittenbenders’ attorney.
“What we’d really like to see out of this is actual, real change in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Schiffer said. “We’d like the school districts to be held accountable and prevent this type of behavior from happening. The laws really need to be changed so LGBT people can go to school and feel safe.”
The suit identifies eight juvenile females by their initials as perpetrators of the harassment, which included unwanted touching, cursing and the Bittenbenders’ daughter having her personal belongings thrown in the garbage can or having garbage shoved in her gym bag during softball season.
According to court documents, Bangor district officials failed to effectively discipline any of the alleged harassers. Instead, court documents said, the Bittenbenders’ daughter was assigned a monitor to follow her and shield her from bullying, which did not abate. According to the suit, the monitor was prematurely removed.
Schiffer said the focus was on the victim instead of the harassers.
“We think that’s completely opposite of what it should be,” he said.
The Bittenbenders have moved with their daughter, now 16, to Warren County, N.J.
Schiffer said New Jersey has stronger laws to hold school districts responsible for instances of bullying, including clear requirements for reporting and investigating the situations. For comparison, he said, Pennsylvania only requires school districts to have a policy, left to their discretion, regarding bullying.