Central Bucks teachers protest flurry of ‘anti-LGBTQ’ policies and directives

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A group of students hold up a sign that reads

Students from Holicong Elementary School’s GSA protested policy 321, which bans teachers in the Central Bucks School District from displaying materials not related to curriculum, like the rainbow Pride flag, outside a community town hall on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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About 30 Central Bucks School District educators and 30 students, parents, and community members gathered Tuesday at Central Bucks East High School to protest one of the district’s new policies.

It was the first teacher-led protest after months of administrative directives and the Republican-led school board passing policies that many say are anti-LGBTQ.

Holicong Middle School teacher Keith Willard said educators have had enough. The district passed a policy last week that censors inclusive symbols like Pride flags, which some fear may chill classroom discussions. This followed policies that censor materials in school libraries and classrooms, and directives that separate students by the sex they were assigned at birth for health classes and deny students’ correct gender pronouns and names.

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“It’s just too much at this point,” Willard said. “It makes it very hard to go into a building, to go to work for a district that is denying the humanity of some of our students.”

A person holds up a megaphone. A Pride version of the U.S. flag is visible in the background.
Keith Willard, a social studies teacher and sponsor of the GSA at Holicong Elementary School, helped lead a community protest of policy 321, which bans teachers in the Central Bucks School District from displaying materials not related to curriculum, like the rainbow Pride flag, outside a community town hall on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The crowd waved and wore rainbow flags. Most of the crowd, though disgusted with the latest policy, was joyful and buzzing, sometimes dancing.

They chanted “teachers shouldn’t be scared to teach” and “let teachers teach.” When cars honked in support, the crowd cheered louder.

A person holds a sign that reads, "CB Teachers, we love and support you."
Parents, students, faculty and other community members protested policy 321, which bans teachers in the Central Bucks School District from displaying materials not related to curriculum, like the rainbow Pride flag, outside a community town hall on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The teachers were boycotting the administration’s town hall inside Central Bucks East, about the new policy 321, entitled “Partisan, Political, or Social Policy Advocacy Activities.”

Holicong Middle School English teacher Kristy Trammell, who is also the co-sponsor of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to the crowd. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. And so we are here to use our voices to say that we do not support policy 321.”

Willard said the policy is a roadblock to progress and is attempting to hide LGBTQ support.

“Some say that we’re elevating one minority above another if we keep such flags, if we keep such symbols and supports,” Willard said. “But we as educators know that not all students are treated equally. We give more support to those that need it.”

A group of protesters display the Pride flag and other signs outside of a school building.
Faculty, students, parents and concerned community members protested policy 321, which bans teachers in the Central Bucks School District from displaying materials not related to curriculum, like the rainbow Pride flag, outside a community town hall on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In an email to staff shared with WHYY News, Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh said the town halls, one of six, are spaces “to listen, ask questions, and open a dialogue to better understand how we can position you to engage in your work within the context of the policy.”

But Willard said it’s too little too late.

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“I don’t see the point of this town hall after the policy has passed,” Willard said. “And to go to a town hall and to try to help navigate and to help make this policy work, I would feel complicit in trying to have some sort of institutionalized bigotry and discrimination in my building.”

A person holds up a Pride flag.
Parents, students, faculty and other community members protested policy 321, which bans teachers in the Central Bucks School District from displaying materials not related to curriculum, like the rainbow Pride flag, outside a community town hall on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Most educators declined to speak on the record about their concerns.

“Teachers are afraid to speak out … because there’s a lot to lose,” Willard said, who is also the co-sponsor of his school’s Gay Straight Alliance. He wore a shirt with the words “Silence = Death” — a phrase coined by the group Act Up, who fought to end the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“But to me, there’s a lot to lose if we don’t speak up. I don’t want to be that person that stood idly by while these things are happening in our district and said nothing,” Willard said.

Middle school students held signs and high school students passed out mini Pride flags.

Students said the collective action was uplifting.

A group of students hold up signs supporting trans and LGBTQ students.
Hannah (left), Simone Serban (center) and Isis Kulish (right), 8th grade students at Holicong Elementary School, protested a ban on Pride flags in the Central Bucks School District on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It feels really empowering to have so many people protest for our rights,” said Isis Kulish, 13, an eighth-grader at Holicong Middle School. “Since the school board just made a new policy, that’s ‘don’t be prideful in classrooms,’ I think that’s really disrespectful to us and any other LGBTQ students, because that’s our pride.”

The U.S. Department of Education is now investigating the district after the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal complaint alleging it has created a hostile environment for LGBTQ youth.

The complaint alleges the district has not adequately responded to severe bullying and harrassment against LGBTQ students, and has made decisions and policies that are perpetuating a hostile climate.

A person holds up a sign decrying Policy 321.
LGBTQ allies protested against policy 321 stood outside Central Bucks East High School during a town hall community meeting on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I’ve been called names, slurs, I’ve been bullied, trash has been thrown at me,” said Rowan Foy, an eighth-grader at Holicong, who is omnisexual.

“321 should have never passed or never even been thought of in this district. We have tried, the GSA, a lot of people here, have tried to bring up a place where everybody can be happy and not discriminated against,” Foy said.

A group of students hold up Pride flags, a megaphone, and signs supporting LGBTQ students.
Mackenzie Junkin (right) and Rowan Foy (second from right), 8th grade students at Holicong Elementary School, protested a ban on Pride flags in the Central Bucks School District on January 17, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Holicong Middle School eighth-grader Mackenzie Junkin was also chanting with friends.

“It’s scary to think that the world doesn’t want you to be here for whatever made up or insignificant reason,” Junkin said. “And just this movement, just being here, it’s energizing. It feels alive. Just… we’re here, we’re here, and we want everyone to know that. And even though we’re scared, we’re all happy to be here.”

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