Darbi grew up in the Pennridge school system. As a freshman at Pennridge High, she joined student council and the debate team and served as a student ambassador. She was a social, happy teenager who talked to everybody—a self-described “table hopper” in the cafeteria. Darbi lived and breathed Pennridge, and trusted the school had her best interests at heart.
"I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. I couldn't understand what was going on, how my body was going through so many different emotions."
Darbi’s therapist and psychiatrist diagnosed her with PTSD, and making it through the school days had become a battle. She recalls feeling constantly afraid and anxious, terrified she would run into H and his friends—in the halls, the cafeteria, assemblies. She also couldn’t escape teenage gossip. Pennridge is a tight-knit community where word travels fast. Rumors were swirling, and H’s friends were telling people that Darbi had sex with several PHS students the night the of assault, the suit states. Darbi’s classmates were clamoring for the “gross details,” she said. School became unbearable.Making matters worse, according to the complaint, H and three of his friends began harassing Darbi constantly, incensed that she had gone to police and school administrators. In May of 2015, a friend showed Darbi screenshots of threatening text messages sent by one of H’s friends, which Broadly reviewed, saying she needed to “learn her place” and that she was going to get “jumped.” On another occasion, the complaint states, H confronted Darbi in the school hallway and called her a “fucking bitch.” Darbi said she reported the harassment to Hegen, as well as the school’s principal Gina DeBona, but no disciplinary action was taken. The administrators suggested that Darbi leave her classes later than other students and have an escort walk her through the halls, but Darbi worried this would make her even more conspicuous. And she bristled at the ideological implication: It also meant that she was the one who had to change her behavior and routine, not the students who were harassing her.
"Most of my days were spent either in a bathroom stall, covering my mouth and trying not to let people hear that I was crying, or in the guidance counselor’s office, crying."
In the following months, Darbi’s attendance plummeted: Her GPA dropped from a 3.9 to a 3.2, and she resigned from the debate team and from student council. On December 27, 2015—the one-year anniversary of Darbi’s alleged rape—one of H’s friends sent her a text message asking her to “hang out.” Her mother reported this to Hegen, who agreed that it was malicious act meant to remind Darbi of “a horrible day in her life,” the lawsuit states, but administrators still took no action.In April of 2016, according to the complaint, one of H’s friends shoved Darbi in the hall. She called a meeting with administrators, hoping they would instruct the friend to stay away from her. Instead, Principal DeBona said in front of Darbi and her alleged harasser that the meeting was a “big waste of time” and that Darbi was “in no danger.” She then instructed Darbi and H’s friend to stay away from each other.
"It was heartbreaking. I felt like nobody cared. All along I felt like no one cared, but now I knew nobody cared."
Darbi isn’t the only student to accuse Pennridge of facilitating a hostile educational environment: In fact, it was another lawsuit against the school that inspired her to come forward in the first place. In early 2017, she learned that a student named Modupe Williams was suing the Pennridge School District for violating her Title IX rights by failing to respond to racial and gender harassment she experienced as a student. When Modupe entered Pennridge High School as a freshman, she was the only African American student in her grade. The complaint states that she was subject to “a sustained campaign of race- and sex-based harassment by classmates,” including a barrage of threatening phone calls from male students. She was also bullied and tormented in school, according to Modupe and her mother, but their reports and requests for help from the school administration went unheeded. (The NWLC successfully represented Modupe in opposing the motion to dismiss.)In addition, since Darbi came forward, another student from the high school has approached the NWLC about a lawsuit, which was filed on August 9. The student, referred to as Jane Doe, reports she was physically and verbally abused by her boyfriend, who was a grade above her, and that the school administration and school district ignored her pleas for help. Because she reported the violence to school officials, the assailant and his friends embarked on an extended campaign of escalating harassment, which was again, ignored by Pennridge—despite multiple reports and requests for help. Instead of receiving support or disciplining the harassers, Doe says she was reportedly told to “suck it up” and attend an “alternative school,” as was Goodwin.“What shocks me about Pennridge is that the lack of concern isn’t subtle,” said Brodsky. “They are punishing survivors who report and trying to hide them away or make them leave. [The NWLC] gets calls from students who have been mistreated, where their school does a half-hearted investigation or provides some accommodation but not enough. Pennridge won't lift a finger.”As alarming as these three cases are, it’s worth noting that Pennridge is far from an outlier. In a nationwide survey from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 81 percent of students in grades 8-11 reported experiencing sexual harassment during their school lives. A wave of activism and high-profile lawsuits over the past few years have spurred many colleges and universities to improve their Title IX programs. The same has yet to happen for K-12. According to Brodsky, many schools aren’t even aware of what their Title IX responsibilities actually are.Compounding the issue, there’s basically no accountability for high schools and middle schools. While the “stick” used to enforce Title IX is the revocation of federal funds, there has yet to be one school district where this has actually happened due to a sexual assault-related failure to enforce Title IX. The lack of viable penalties perpetuates Title IX non-compliance, as does silence. Far too often, schools only take meaningful action when threatened with legal action or when members of the community raise a ruckus.Another challenge is that drawing more attention to themselves is often the last thing people who have experienced sexual violence and harassment want to do. A prolonged fight with a school district can be just as traumatizing as the incident itself, and so sexual assault survivors often leave school, switch schools, or back down, and the problem continues. A student might see how their school treated other students, like Darbi and Modupe, and decide that coming forward is not worth it—a “chilling effect.”It takes a rare student who is willing to stand up against their school, which may incite the wrath of the community and create an environment that feels even more hostile and isolating than it did before. For some, like Modupe, Darbi, and now Jane Doe, the personal cost is worth it.“These last three years have felt like no matter what I do to try and save my high school experience, it gets diminished within seconds because someone doesn't do their job,” Darbi said. “It's going to be a hell of a fight I'm sure, but I don't intend on giving up until I know the next Darbi Goodwin who goes to the school is not going to get neglected the way that I did.”
"These last three years have felt like no matter what I do to try and save my high school experience, it gets diminished within seconds because someone doesn't do their job."