Arguments heard in SV's request for dismissal of lawsuit

August 28, 2019 Cranberry Local News


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PITTSBURGH — Whether the Seneca Valley School District's policies regarding sexual assault and making false claims are selectively enforced based on gender was the center of arguments on Aug. 20 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Oral arguments were held over the district's motion to be dismissed from a lawsuit filed by the Flood family of Zelienople on behalf of their minor son, T.F.

An amended version of the lawsuit filed in May lists the district as a defendant along with David and Christy Sherk as parents of minor K.S.; David and Christine Seaman as parents of C.S.; Cris and Kimberly Salancy as parents of minor E.S.; and David and Lynn Reina, both individually and as parents of H.R.

The three-count complaint states K.S., C.S., E.S. and H.R. falsely accused T.F. of criminal conduct, including sexual assault. As a result, T.F. was bullied at school and suffered a “loss of his liberty, psychological and physical injuries.”

It also took aim at the district's “gender-biased” selective enforcement of bullying and sexual assault policies, which was the focus of last week's hearing.

The district is accused of violating the 14th Amendment of the Constitution by selectively enforcing student conduct policies and not disciplining the girls. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection under the law. The complaint alleges the school's policies are “gender-neutral on their face,” but were enforced in a gender-biased manor.

Response motions were filed by the district and again by the Flood's attorney, Craig Fishman, before arguments, with the district ultimately asking for a dismissal, citing a lack of actionable claim and established facts.

The district's attorney, Matthew Hoffman, reviewed the timeline of the case, and said in two instances in which claims were made against T.F., district officials took the state-required steps of reporting the incidents to ChildLine, a protective services program.

He added there is no evidence that the district has a “custom” or policy that indicates male students be treated differently than female students.

Ultimately, he argued, any discipline T.F. was subjected to — before the admission of false statements — could have been appealed to the school board, superintendent or other district official. That discipline included T.F. not being allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, including baseball, and no appeals were made, he noted.

However, Fishman contended that principals in the district serve as “de facto policymakers” and ultimately are the ones responsible for handing down discipline.

In this instance, he said a principal should have investigated and held the girls responsible for their claims. He pointed to five examples of unrelated cases in which the district allegedly treated male students differently than female students in matters of sexual assault and harassment as an example of the “custom” existing. He also noted that school officials have not taken action to correct those matters.

Chief Judge Mark R. Hornak took the matter under advisement, and said he intended to reach a decision quickly.

Depending on his decision, he indicated he would also consider whether to maintain jurisdiction for the case. The district's possible dismissal would mean the only remaining defendants are individuals, and such cases are typically handled at the state level.

Hornak polled attorneys gathered — a representative for each defendant was present in the gallery to watch the proceedings — although none offered an opinion on the matter. Both Fishman and Kenneth Hardin, who is representing the Floods in the countersuits filed by K.S. and C.S., said they preferred the case remain in federal court.

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J.W.  Johnson Jr.

J.W. Johnson Jr.

J.W. Johnson Jr. is the bureau chief of the Cranberry Eagle. Johnson is a native of Bellaire, Ohio, and graduated from Bellaire High School in 2004. He is a 2009 graduate of Ohio University in Athens with a bachelor of specialized studies degree in English and journalism. While there, he served as a reporter and editor at The Post, the university’s student-run, independent newspaper. In 2009, he was hired as a reporter for The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in Wheeling, W.Va. Over the course of eight years, he also served as Marshall County bureau chief, city editor and news editor. He also won two first place West Virginia Press Association Awards for his reporting and design work. He and his wife, Maureen, live in Carnegie.