DarbiAnne Goodwin had always been a model student, with a near-perfect GPA and a long list of extracurriculars. For as long as she can remember, even before she started kindergarten, school was her favorite part of the day. That’s no longer the case.
On December 27, 2014, during her sophomore year at Pennridge High School, Darbi says she was raped in the parking lot of a local restaurant. Her alleged assailant was a fellow student, a junior. Two months later, Darbi told her mom and her therapist what had happened, and the assault was subsequently reported to the police. As Darbi struggled desperately to cope at school, battling PTSD and crushing anxiety, her mother met with school administrators. She wanted to know if there was anything they could do to protect Darbi from the student, or at least ensure they wouldn’t have class together. In response, they say, the school took no immediate action.
What ensued was a battle that lasted for years, a battle that pitted Darbi against the school district and derailed the rest of her high school experience, causing her to drop out and take classes from home on more than one occasion, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year, which asserts that administrators had repeatedly failed to take “even the most basic of steps” to ensure Darbi could receive her education in a safe and respectful environment.
“My mom and I said [to school], ‘You have to make it so I don't feel like I'm going to die every time I walk into a hallway,’” Darbi said. “They completely ignored everything we had to say.”
The Pennridge School District is in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is located about 40 miles north of Philadelphia. It’s a rural area with beautiful historic homes and charming small towns that resemble a set out of Gilmore Girls. Darbi’s father grew up in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, and the family moved back there from Philadelphia when she was a baby. The youngest of five siblings, Darbi was involved with school activities before she was old enough for school herself, accompanying her mom on volunteer projects and helping out with the school plays and other events that her siblings were involved in.
"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 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.
The alleged assault—or more specifically, the aftermath—shattered that belief. Immediately afterwards, Darbi says, she didn’t tell anyone what happened. As weeks went by, however, she started to unravel. “I was very confused,” she said. “I was an emotional wreck. 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. I was confused and a mess.”
In February of 2015, Darbi broke down and told her mother and her therapist that she had been raped. Her therapist was legally obligated by Pennsylvania law to report the assault to the police. The police opened an investigation in March, but the assailant, referred to in the complaint as “H,” denied that he raped Darbi and claimed what happened was consensual. Darbi decided not to press charges, knowing how traumatic trials can be and how rarely the accused are convicted. (Statistics from the Rape, Assault, Incest National Network show that perpetrators walk free in 994 out of every 1000 rape cases.) H was never prosecuted.
In March, Darbi’s mother—who asked not to be named and has a different last name than her daughter—met with Scott Hegen, a teacher at Pennridge who served as the principal for the sophomore class. She told him about the assault and asked to discuss possible courses of action: Could the school open an investigation into what had happened? Was there anything they could do to protect Darbi from the student who had assaulted her? She hoped Pennridge would at least issue a “no contact” order that prohibited H from interacting with Darbi.
According to the complaint, Hegen said he could not take disciplinary action because H had not been criminally convicted and the incident took place off campus. To Darbi and her mother, his response indicated that the school was not taking their report seriously. (Hegen did not respond to requests for comment.)
“As Darbi was having struggles being in school, [Pennridge] became less and less and less helpful,” Darbi’s mother said. “They said, ‘There is nothing we can do. You are safe, there is no reason to worry, it’s all in her head.’ And that's when it started getting very frustrating for everyone.”
"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."
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.
At this point, Darbi was regularly missing classes and struggling to make it through a full school day. “If I got up the courage to go to school, by third period, I would just leave,” she said. “I would break down and cry and go home. I probably spent one to two full days at school a week, and 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... Every day was the same routine.”
Eventually, Darbi reached a breaking point: She simply didn’t feel safe at school. She submitted a letter from her therapist and her psychiatrist to Hegen, in which both stated that her trauma and anxiety made her unable to attend classes. Then she finished out the school year at home, returning only to take her finals.
“I failed all of my finals, naturally, because I was trying to teach myself everything,” Darbi said. “And when I had to execute it on a test, I was afraid of the other people in the room.”
Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, prevents any school that receives federal assistance from discriminating against students on the basis of sex. While it is perhaps best known for addressing gender equity in sports, Title IX also applies to sexual harassment and violence: If schools fail to respond to reports of student-on-student sexual assault and harassment, they fail to create an equitable learning environment.
The assertion that Pennridge did not have to investigate the assault and subsequent harassment, take disciplinary action, or accommodate Darbi was wrong, her lawyers say. Under Title IX, schools have a responsibility to “respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence,” including conducting an independent investigation that is separate from criminal investigations by local police. And it does not matter if the assault itself took place off campus if it affects the victim’s capacity to learn on campus. In short, because Darbi found attending school with H and his friends to be traumatic, that meant Pennridge had a legal responsibility to listen and respond to her pleas for help. However, as Darbi and her mother would come to learn, recognizing the rights on paper and getting the school to take action were entirely different propositions.
Over the summer, Darbi decided she wanted to go back to Pennridge for her junior year rather than continuing to try and study at home. In anticipation of her return, her mother contacted the school administrators again, and set up a meeting with the district’s Title IX coordinator, Jacqui McHale. They agreed on a date to discuss Darbi’s future at the school, according to an email quoted in the suit: September 2, 2015.
But the school year started before the meeting took place. On Darbi’s first day, she discovered that she was scheduled to share a study hall location with H, as well as a lunch period with his three friends who she reported for harassment the previous school year. “I walked into the cafeteria and there they were,” she said. “It was a foreshadowing that the rest of the year would be terrible. I immediately shut down and almost fell to the ground crying… It was heartbreaking. I felt like nobody cared. All along I felt like no one cared, but now I knew nobody cared.”
The September 2 meeting did nothing to assuage her fears. In addition to McHale, three other administrators—including Principal DeBona and Hegen—attended. “We sat for two-and-a-half hours and they told me there was nothing they could do, that the boys were seniors and they couldn’t change their schedules,” Darbi’s mother said. “I said to them, ‘If something happens to her, it’s blood on your hands. That’s how I’m looking at it.’”
"It was heartbreaking. I felt like nobody cared. All along I felt like no one cared, but now I knew nobody cared."
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 at this point that Darbi decided she couldn’t take it anymore and once again left, finishing her junior year through a pilot cyber school program and taking classes online. “My heart is broken,” her mother wrote in an email to the school. “[I am] saddened that those that I trusted to protect my daughter, looked at HER as wasting their time...leaving her feeling like SHE is the problem.”
The student Darbi accused of rape and his friends went on to finish the school year “without incident,” the complaint states, and graduated in the end of the spring.
Sexual harassment can qualify as discrimination under Title IX if it is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit,” according to the ACLU. Schools can be held legally responsible when their response to harassment is “clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances” and they may have to pay damages to the victim if the plaintiff can show that they acted with “deliberate indifference.”
According to Alexandra Brodsky, a lawyer at National Women's Law Center who is representing Darbi, Darbi’s case satisfies each of these standards: The harassment was known and severe, Goodwin’s academic performance and participation plummeted, and the school did not respond adequately. “If the school did something, that makes it hard to argue deliberate indifference, but Darbi’s case is so egregious,” she said.
In response to the lawsuit, Pennridge filed a motion to dismiss on June 14, 2017. DeBona, Rattigan, and McHale all declined to comment for this story due to ongoing litigation, and Hegen did not respond to a request for comment. Joseph Santarone, who is representing Pennridge in the suit, said that the issue comes down to the plaintiff’s own descriptions of what she said happened and the school’s response.
“The school addressed the concerns, it’s just the plaintiff wasn’t satisfied with what was done,” he wrote in an email. “We filed our motion and we’ll wait for the court to decide.”
In the motion to dismiss, the defendants do not “challenge the veracity of the claim of an assault” nor do they “seek to downplay the significance of the assault or its effect on the plaintiff.” Instead, their argument is that what Darbi experienced does not constitute "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” harassment and that the Pennridge acted appropriately, even if “the steps taken by the school do not meet with the approval of plaintiff or her mother.”
“The defendants’ legal arguments display a startling disregard for their students’ safety as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of schools’ legal responsibilities to address sexually hostile environments,” said Brodsky. “Among other misstatements of the law, the defendants claim that a school need not and indeed should not discipline students for behavior absent criminal charges. Both are clearly incorrect as a matter of law and of ethics.”
"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 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.”