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Federal judge limits potential evidence in Indian River Central discrimination suit

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Siblings who filed an anti-gay discrimination suit against Indian River Central School are appealing a U.S. magistrate judge’s ruling that disallowed certain evidence being entered into the case.

Former students Charles P. Pratt and his sister, Ashley E. Petranchuk, filed suit in U.S. District Court, Syracuse, in April 2009 alleging he was harassed, called names, physically assaulted and threatened for being gay before he dropped out of Indian River High School, Philadelphia, when he was 15 years old. He claims that district officials were aware of the problems but deliberately refused to help him. He and his sister also said any attempts by him to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school were shot down by administrators.

In the suit, Mr. Pratt has attempted to demonstrate that the district was aware of a “hostile environment” at its high school for years before he arrived there but failed to address it.

Mr. Pratt sought through discovery to have incidents of alleged harassment that occurred before he was a student in the district, or before the 1993-94 school year, entered into evidence. He also sought to have claimed incidents that occurred while he was a student in the district between 1993 and October 2004, but in buildings other than the ones he was attending.

The district fought the enlarged scope of the evidence being sought, arguing that any alleged harassment that occurred prior to Mr. Pratt’s attending the school, or that may have occurred in buildings he was not in, was not relevant to his claims and was overly burdensome to obtain.

In a Nov. 5 order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Wiley Dancks mostly agreed with the district, ruling that only claimed incidents that occurred while Mr. Pratt was attending the school and in buildings where he was a student will be allowed as evidence. The judge barred incidents that occurred before he was a student and after he withdrew from the district, with the exception of the years that his sister attended the high school, 2007 to 2011.

His attorneys with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., headquartered in New York City, appealed the decision Tuesday, asking that the court set aside the portion of Judge Dancks’s order that prohibited his attorneys from seeking discovery about the alleged incidents occurring when he was not enrolled. The U.S. Department of Justice is participating in the case as an “amicus curiae,” or friend of the court, essentially volunteering to help the court decide whether federal discrimination claims by Mr. Pratt should be upheld.

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