ACLU files federal complaint against Central Bucks School District, alleging discrimination against LGBTQ students

Michaela holds up a sign that says ''Dictators ban books ... not democracies!''

FIle photo: Michaela, a sophomore student at Central Bucks West High School, said at first they feared speaking out about removing books deemed sexualized from district schools’ libraries, at a rally ahead of the Central Bucks School District’s vote to remove books perceived to have sexualized content from their libraries on July 26, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The Central Bucks School District is discriminating against LGBTQ students, the ACLU of Pennsylvania alleges in a complaint it filed Thursday with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education.

The ACLU claims that Central Bucks, the fourth largest school district in Pennsylvania, is violating Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — overall creating a “hostile environment” for LGBTQ students.

The school board and “complicit upper-level administrators” have “exacerbated the hostile environment by making homophobic and transphobic statements, enacting blatantly discriminatory practices and policies targeting LGBTQ+ students, and retaliating against teachers and staff who support LGBTQ+ students,” the complaint says.

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The ACLU cites policies censoring books, procedures about not using students’ correct pronouns and names, directives censoring the materials that teachers can hang in classrooms and intimidating teachers into self-censoring their materials, and administrative decisions punishing staff who speak out against anti-LGBTQ directives, among others, as examples of Central Bucks’ discriminatory practices and policies.

These measures have led to a noticeable increase in severe anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment between students, according to the ACLU. Trans students report being afraid to go to school, and being afraid to eat lunch in the cafeteria, opting to eat in the bathroom or classrooms of supportive teachers. One former trans student attempted suicide in response to the bullying.

The district has demonstrated a “chronic failure to take reasonable and necessary measures” to address the bullying, the complaint states.

The students and families behind the complaint are asking the U.S. Department of Education to order Central Bucks to “rescind its discriminatory policies and directives” and to “take whatever additional measures are necessary to eliminate the hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students.”

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The students and families also are asking that the U.S. Department of Education order Central Bucks to follow federal recommendations for supporting transgender and other gender non-conforming students. Those guidelines include using inclusive language, adopting policies that respect all students’ gender identities, and providing professional development opportunities for educators on equitable treatment of historically underserved students, including LGBTQ youth.

The ACLU says its team interviewed “dozens of LGBTQ+ students and their parents, current and former Central Bucks teachers, counselors, librarians, and other staff, and a variety of community stakeholders.”

The complaint includes seven stories from Central Bucks students and their families. Several more LGBTQ+ students and parents shared their stories but chose not to take part in the action, out of fear of retaliation from Central Bucks officials, according to the ACLU report.

The filing has a list of six policies, public statements, and actions they claim are discriminatory:

  1. The administration is “intimidating” faculty into self-censoring their classroom libraries, removing LGBTQ-themed material, the complaint says. In fall 2021, administrators audited a Holicong Middle School teacher’s classroom library to determine if it contained anything “inappropriate” for middle school students, after an anonymous video publicly attacked the teacher’s library. Lenape Middle School administrators emailed staff “around April,” “stating that anyone with a classroom library should stop at the office for a discussion.” The school board eventually passed two policies meant to censor library books, and textbooks and resource materials. The ACLU describes Central Bucks’ book policies as a “thinly disguised” effort to censor LGBTQ+-themed material.
  2. District level administrators directed counselors in April to separate elementary students by the sex they were assigned at birth — rather than their gender identities — for classes about puberty. The district explicitly denied a nonbinary elementary student’s choice of health class. Following pushback against the directive, the district backpedaled and made all elementary classes about human growth and development virtual and optional.
  3. The Unami Middle School principal in May ordered three teachers to remove Pride flags from their classrooms. District administrators also ordered Central Bucks South High School staff to remove a Pride flag from a Pride Month display in the school library. A newly proposed policy, up for a first read in the Oct. 11 school board meeting, would prohibit teachers from displaying “decor related to political, sociopolitical, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious beliefs.”
  4. The Lenape Middle School principal in May directed teachers to use students’ names and pronouns that are in the school’s database for their end-of-year awards and certificates. Central Bucks West High School administrators directed teachers in September to not use students’ preferred names or pronouns at all without parent consent. Lenape Middle School followed with the same directive weeks later.
  5. The district suspended Lenape Middle School teacher Andrew Burgess (his name is redacted from the public filing) in May after he told a bullied trans student and their parent that they could file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, according to the ACLU. LGBTQ+ students protested his suspension. The ACLU says the district has yet to identify any policy or protocol that Burgess violated.
  6. The ACLU said comments from Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh and school board President Dana Hunter defending the district’s policies were “intended to intimidate and silence opposition.” Central Bucks “will protect teachers accused of intolerance, but will punish teachers who display messages of support and tolerance,” the complaint says.

The report also lists six ways the district has rejected staff training on LGBTQ inclusivity and intimidated staff who oppose Central Bucks’ actions.

  1. During the 2018-19 school year, administrators denied an elementary school guidance counselor’s request to make a presentation on caring for gender nonconforming students required for all district staff.
  2. In the following school year, administrators rejected a staff request for programming on “deadnaming of trans students and how other students could be supportive of peers.”
  3. In early 2021, school board members mocked a trans inclusivity workshop for teachers during a school board meeting. A teacher who requested funding for several teachers to attend a training on trans inclusivity heard board members “laughing at her request and speaking of the ‘transgenders’ before denying her grant request.”
  4. In March, the district cut ties with CB Cares, a local education foundation that gave teachers grants for LGBTQ-related resources.
  5. The district abruptly cut ties with the Gender and Sexuality Clinic at the Childrens’ Hospital of Philadelphia in May. Before 2020, CHOP conducted staff training on how to support trans youth. In May, the district canceled its training, and “indicated that the training would likely not occur again.” Administrators blamed the cancellation on an employees’ union requesting equal lunch breaks for all staff during staff development days.
  6. Central Bucks administrators disciplined two guidance counselors in the spring for openly opposing the policy prohibiting a trans student from attending the Human Growth and Development class that correlates with their identity, after a story published by WHYY News quoted two anonymous guidance counselors.

The complaint says district administrators took these actions even though many students, parents, and teachers had notified them of “pervasive” bullying of LGBTQ students in district schools.

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