Lawsuit accuses Pennsauken School District of anti-gay discrimination
A federal lawsuit alleges New Jersey’s Pennsauken School District failed to provide adequate education to an autistic student, then retaliated against the student’s family with discriminatory and false anti-gay claims in an attempt to intimidate them from continuing to advocate for the child.
The initial suit was filed in U.S. District Court in December 2012 on behalf of the youngest member of the Vandergrift family, identified in court documents only as D.V., as well as on behalf of D.V.’s uncle, Thomas Vandergrift.
D.V. has been diagnosed with autism and generalized anxiety disorder, resulting in “severe deficits in socialization, communication and motor skills” that caused “a tumultuous childhood with his parents,” and lead him to live with paternal grandmother Betty Vandergrift, who initiated the legal action, according to a release from attorney Amelia Carolla of Reisman Carolla Gran, LLP.
The suit claims, despite three evaluations received in January 2011 and March and June of 2012 classifying D.V. as autistic, the Pennsauken School District refused to accept the diagnosis and, consequently, neglected to provide him with a Free and Appropriate Education mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
As Betty Vandergrift began administrative proceedings in an attempt to compel the District to meet D.V.’s needs, school personnel allegedly continued to dispute the diagnosis and insist they had not noticed behavior symptomatic of autism outside of challenges related to D.V.’s personal hygiene.
Betty, together with Thomas Vandergrift, allegedly responded to those concerns during a meeting Aug. 18, 2011 with the School District’s child study team by stating several family members – including Betty, Thomas and D.V.’s grandfather – tried to teach D.V. how to wash himself in the shower.
The suit claims School District representatives were aware Thomas, who was at the time employed as a New Jersey public school teacher, was openly gay.
Court documents allege the day after the meeting investigators with the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services visited D.V. at home, claiming members of the Pennsauken School District’s child study team had called their offices “multiple times over the preceding 24 hours to report that D.V. was the victim of inappropriate / sexual touching” by Thomas.
After conducting a thorough investigation consisting of interviews and an evaluation of D.V.’s body, DYFS workers found the allegations to be unsubstantiated, “but the process was very upsetting and disruptive for the entire family,” a release claims.
The suit states members of the child study team “had no specific facts to support allegations of any inappropriate acts or behavior involving D.V. or Thomas” and targeted Thomas for the complaint because of the fact that he was gay and attempting to advocate on D.V.’s behalf.
“This was a clear instance of retaliation by discrimination that was intended to intimidate the Vandergrift family so they would stop advocating for D.V.,” a release from Reisman Carolla Gran, LLP reads.
Court documents further point out due to Thomas’s employment as a public school teacher, he must report all child abuse allegations to his current superintendent and disclose the information when applying for future teaching positions, “no matter how unfounded the allegations may be.”
“Even a baseless claim of child abuse could cost Thomas a job, his reputation and minimize future opportunities for growth and advancement in the field,” the release states.
Betty during the 2011 through 2012 school year chose to hire a psychotherapist with no affiliation with the School District to work with D.V. and absorbed the expense, allegedly because the family “feared further retaliatory action.”
D.V. in January 2012 reported to his therapist what a release calls “the first in a long list of incidents of physical abuse, taunting and bullying suffered at the hands of other students.”
Though the School District was allegedly given notice of each bullying and harassment incident, the suit claims staff “repeatedly minimized the severity of each incident, and neglected to intervene on D.V.’s behalf to guarantee his safety.”
During a meeting with School District representatives on May 16 and 17, 2012, School District psychologist Billie Berenbaum allegedly acknowledged though it was “commonplace” for students to call one another “gay” in D.V.’s class, D.V. “should not get upset about it because it was not a ‘big deal.’”
“Her dismissive attitude toward the derogatory use of the word was so cavalier that the Superintendent ordered her out of the room halfway through the meeting,” the release claims.
The suit alleges the School District opted to take no action to secure a safe educational environment for D.V. and failed to conduct a timely bullying investigation as required by New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Law.
“The bullying became so pervasive that D.V. was not able to return to school beginning in March 2012 and missed the remainder of the school year,” the complaint states.
Betty and the School District in August 2012 agreed to place D.V. at a private special educational school, but a motion to amend the complaint filed Sept. 9 takes aim at the “retaliatory and discriminatory tactics executed by the School District to intimidate the Vandergrift family,” in particular, to intimidate Thomas.
A trial date for the proceedings has not yet been scheduled.