Penn State

Former Penn State student sues university for more than $75,000

A former Penn State student believes the university discriminated against her based on her race when it decided to suspend her.

Grace Simms, who is black, said in a lawsuit that the university discriminated against her due to her race in the aftermath of an incident with two other students.

Simms, who attended Penn State Altoona, recently filed a lawsuit for in excess of $75,000 against the university, and employees Jay Burlingame and Robert Matchock, who the suit says played roles in the disciplinary actions against Simms.

The lawsuit said Simms was the target of cyberbullying in March 2016 by fellow student Sarah Ismail, who was not named as a defendant in the suit. Ismail, according to court documents and the university’s directory, has not faced any charges related to the incident and is an active student.

The lawsuit alleges in one incident on March 29, 2016, Ismail had pounded on Simms’ door and recorded a Snapchat story that consisted of Ismail harassing Simms for about 10 minutes. The alleged bullying caused nearby students to check on Simms’ well-being.

Simms and Ismail were each in the library later that day, and Simms asked that Ismail delete the video from her Snapchat account, according to the lawsuit. Ismail, appearing intoxicated, allegedly cursed at Simms. Another student intervened, and Ismail allegedly spit on the other student, leading to a physical altercation that did not involve Simms.

Simms and the other student reported the incident to police, and Simms was informed a few days later that she would face disciplinary and criminal charges.

On April 7, 2016, Penn State police charged Simms with misdemeanor simple assault, misdemeanor conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct and harassment, a summary offense. The Office of Student Conduct also charged Simms with violations under the student conduct policy and scheduled a hearing for May 19, 2016.

The conduct board at the hearing was made up entirely of white people, and Simms felt they were “overly dismissive” and “disrespectful” toward her due to race and had predetermined their decision. The conduct board unanimously agreed Simms would be suspended through the spring 2017 semester, pay Ismail’s “out-of-pocket” expenses and attend counseling prior to re-enrollment.

The lawsuit said Simms had no contact with anyone during the fight and had “begged” for them to stop.

Criminal charges against Simms were withdrawn on July 12, 2016, and she did not return to the university.

The lawsuit alleged that the university violated Simms’ 14th Amendment rights to due process, unlawfully discriminated against her due to her race and violated the terms of its Code of Conduct and Student Conduct Procedures.

Neither Penn State, the two employees or Ismail responded to requests for comment.

Shawn Annarelli: 814-235-3928, @Shawn_Annarelli