Why We’re Taking Legal Action — Again — Against the Central Bucks School District
by Witold “Vic” Walczak and Richard Ting
Here we go again. For the second time in less than a year, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has taken legal action against Central Bucks School District because of the district’s discriminatory and punitive policies against LGBQ&T students and their allies. This time, we have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a middle school teacher who tried to help one of his persistently bullied students…and was disciplined by the district for it.
In March of 2022, a transgender student at Lenape Middle School approached a teacher, Andrew Burgess, with a list documenting many incidents of bullying he had experienced during the school year. The student and his family had previously reported the bullying to school administrators, but the situation did not improve. When the school’s leadership failed to address the ongoing bullying, the student went to Mr. Burgess.
At the request of the student and the student’s family, Mr. Burgess filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaint alleged that Central Bucks School District failed to address the persistent anti-LGBQ&T bullying endured by the student, which is a violation of federal civil rights laws.
Shortly after the district learned about Mr. Burgess’s role in helping the student file the civil rights complaint, they suspended him. Immediately after suspending him in the middle of a school day, school administrators confiscated his laptop and escorted him out of the building, with some of his colleagues and students witnessing the scene.
After his suspension, Mr. Burgess did not hear back from the district for several months. Then, just a week before the start of the school year, the district informed him that they were transferring him from teaching eighth grade at Lenape Middle School to teaching seventh grade at another middle school. The abrupt reassignment meant that Mr. Burgess had little time to learn and prepare an entirely new set of coursework. And, according to the lawsuit, those aren’t the district’s only retaliatory acts against Mr. Burgess.
Our schools should be a safe and supportive environment that protects and gives every student the opportunity to learn, grow, and be their full selves. Disciplining a teacher who works to make these goals a reality is inconsistent with such an educational mission. Central Bucks School District should be celebrating Mr. Burgess for his commitment to the well-being of his students. Instead, the school district punished him for doing the right thing. It’s not just unfair. Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, it’s also illegal.
Of course, this lawsuit is just the latest example of a culture rife with discrimination and censorship –most often targeting LGBQ&T students– that has emerged in recent years in the Central Bucks School District.
The school district has kowtowed to a small group of vocal parents by banning library books with “sexualized content,” a thinly veiled effort to censor LGBQ&T-themed material.
It has banned pride flags in the classroom and resources intended for LGBQ&T students because these items are too “political.”
It has directed teachers to deadname transgender students and ignore pronoun preferences, unless such changes are explicitly approved by a student’s parents, effectively outing students to their parents whether they are ready to come out or not.
And, it has continued to allow discrimination and bullying to fester across the district, leading the ACLU of Pennsylvania to file a complaint on behalf of seven LGBQ&T students with the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education in October of 2022. Rather than take obvious and cost-effective measures that could improve the toxic educational environment, like adopting best practices used in many well-run school districts and providing training to staff, the district has spent nearly a million dollars to fight the ACLU’s action.
The district superintendent recently responded to the flurry of charges of discrimination against Central Bucks in an open letter that is little more than gaslighting, claiming that the criticisms of the district’s policies as discriminatory against LGBQ&T students are little more than “political and social ideology.”
The superintendent’s response comes just weeks after more than 800 Central Bucks alum sent a scathing letter to the school board, urging them to rollback the “discriminatory and dangerous policies that you and some school administrators have implemented or allowed to happen in the district over the past year.”
All students have a right to be treated with respect and dignity and to have a safe learning environment. Unfortunately, a majority of the Central Bucks School District’s board and superintendent are pandering to a handful of vocal parents who are uncomfortable around people who may be different from them. But they can’t erase LGBQ&T youth from the student body. And they can’t ignore the constitution and civil rights laws by refusing to fix a toxic environment for LGBQ&T students. Or by retaliating against a wonderful teacher who tried to help a suffering student.
Whether it’s fighting for the right of teachers like Andrew Burgess to do the job that he loves, defending the use of pride flags and resources for LGBQ&T youth, or ending the culture of bullying at Central Bucks, the ACLU of Pennsylvania won’t stop challenging these dangerous and discriminatory policies until every student in the Central Bucks School District feels safe and secure to be their full selves at school.
Vic Walczak is the legal director and Richard Ting is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.