Judge rejects Penn State’s bid to throw out a lawsuit brought by former majorette

A federal judge refused Tuesday to throw out a lawsuit brought by a former Penn State majorette that alleged the university stood by while her coach relentlessly bullied and harassed her and some of her teammates.

Chief U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania Judge Matthew Brann turned aside in its entirety Penn State’s argument that ex-coach Heather Bean’s alleged harassment was not based on sex.

Lawyers for the university also unsuccessfully argued the allegations were not severe or pervasive enough to deprive Kaitlyn Wassel of educational benefits, or that its response was not deliberately indifferent.

In response to one of Penn State’s attempts to support its arguments, Brann wrote the university misstated the law with out-of-context quotes. Other university arguments, Brann wrote, were based on similar misrepresentations.

Penn State declined comment through a spokesperson, which is the university’s general policy when litigation is ongoing. The university must answer the lawsuit within 14 days.

Wassel’s lawsuit alleged the university’s longtime head majorette coach fat-shamed, harassed, discriminated and retaliated against her during her four years at the university.

The harassment, as attorney Andy Shubin described it, was “devastating and all encompassing.” The 31-page suit also contained similar allegations from four other former majorettes.

Wassel, of Maryland, earned a spot on the majorettes team, which is part of the Blue Band, when she enrolled in 2018. The harassment, she alleged, began almost immediately.

She accused Bean of targeting her and some of her teammates based upon “her view that their body size did not comport with what a stereotypical woman should look like.” She alleged Bean deliberately forced her to wear a uniform that was too small and prohibited her from either exchanging or altering it.

As a result, according to the filing, Wassel developed an eating disorder.

“During virtually every practice session, Bean reprimanded Kaitlyn about her eating, body shape, and the fit of her uniform,” Shubin wrote. “She forced Kaitlyn to wear the ill-fitting uniform as a means to shame her and make her feel that she did not comport with what a woman should look like — routinely in front of her teammates.”

When Wassel brought an allegation of sexual assault to Bean, the suit alleged the coach was “enraged” and berated her. She also claimed the coach refused to report it, ordered her to not report or speak about it and told teammates to stay away because she was a “bad person.”

When a lice infestation broke out among the twirling team, Bean allegedly told Wassel it was her fault because she was “such a whore” and the team was “lucky she did not spread an STD to them.”

The suit also alleged Bean persistently questioned Wassel about her personal, social and sexual life, calling her in the evenings and on weekends to ask for private information.

After a fellow majorette filed a formal discrimination complaint against Bean during Wassel’s sophomore year, the coach allegedly told Wassel she would be kicked off the team or expelled if she ever filed a report.

Wassel’s suit also alleged Bean ostracized her from the team, arranging for team photos to be taken only when Wassel was not present and enlisting a teammate to “aggressively” bully her.

According to the suit, Bean told Wassel she deserved “everything that’s coming to you” and that “you should think about why you deserved to be bullied and fix yourself.”

Shubin wrote that Wassel was happy, healthy, well-adjusted and driven before she arrived in Happy Valley, but was driven to panic attacks, sleeping problems, anxiety and other increasingly severe mental health symptoms.

The lawsuit alleged Bean’s supervisor and Blue Band Director Gregory Drane was dismissive of her complaints and stripped Wassel of her role as team captain the day after a 2021 meeting.

A week after graduating, Wassel and other twirlers and alumnae who separately initiated complaints against Bean banded together. A February 2023 letter that summarized a joint investigation said many of the allegations were corroborated and violated university policy.

The report found the university could not substantiate the allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment because it “occurred without the presence of witnesses.”

The university said it could not discipline Bean because she already resigned in fall 2022 after nearly three decades as majorettes coach. Bean was not named as a defendant in the suit.

“Bean … amassed a record of competitive successes, including winning national championships for Penn State,” Shubin wrote. “Sadly, the University prioritized the prestige Bean brought to the University over the safety and well-being of its students; it valued its reputation over its integrity and Kaitlyn and other majorettes were predictable causalities.”

The lawsuit claims Penn State violated Title IX — the landmark U.S. law meant to bring equity between men and women in most facets of education — and the equal protection clause of the Constitution. She’s seeking unspecified damages.

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