Got a question about life in Philly’s suburbs? Our suburban reporters want to hear from you! Ask us a question or send an idea for a story you think we should cover.
A Central Bucks School District teacher is suing the district and superintendent Abe Lucabaugh, alleging retaliation for his support of LGBTQ students.
The teacher, Andrew Burgess, claims his suspension, and involuntary reassignment to a different school and grade resulted from his advocacy for a transgender student who was bullied, and his criticism of the district potentially removing classroom library books with “LGBTQ themes.”
Burgess filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in March 2022 at the request of the trans student and their family, according to the complaint. The student and family had reported bullying numerous times to the district but the district failed to rectify the situation, according to the suit.
After Burgess filed the complaint, in May 2022, the district suspended him and escorted him out of Lenape Middle School, where he had taught for 14 years.
Burgess alleges the district violated the First Amendment and Title IX by retaliating against him for both “his speech and for reporting discrimination on the basis of sex.” The ACLU of Pennsylvania, one of the two firms representing Burgess, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia Tuesday.
“When a struggling student came to me, I did what we should want any teacher to do. I advocated for that student, as I had for numerous students in the past,” Burgess said in a press release. “That’s why teachers get into this work, to support, guide, and nurture our students.”
“…Instead of properly addressing the situation, the district’s administration disciplined me and then accused me of the very thing that they themselves had done. They failed to act at a time when this student needed their help and support,” Burgess said.
At a May school board meeting, superintendent Lucabaugh said the district did not suspend Burgess for helping an LGBTQ student. “That narrative is offensive and it’s categorically false. No district would deign to take such action against an employee.”
WHYY News reached out to the district on Tuesday and is awaiting its response.
Burgess filed a second complaint against the district with the OCR for the district’s alleged retaliation against him.
Vic Walczak, legal director for the ACLU, said Burgess was legally protected against retaliation as someone who filed an OCR complaint. “The statute has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to say that if somebody participates in filing a complaint of discrimination, any retaliation for the filing of that complaint also violates the statute,” Walczak told WHYY News.
According to the suit, the district wrote in a letter to Burgess that he deliberately failed to “follow the proper protocol so that the administration could address and rectify these bullying conditions. Indeed, your actions may have been responsible for the continuation of the bullying suffered by the student.”
Counter to the district’s letter, the complaint says there is no district policy that requires teachers to report bullying, and the administration had already been made aware of the bullying against this particular student.
“There was no legitimate reason for suspending Burgess. CBSD was instead retaliating against Burgess and endeavoring to construct a basis to intimidate him and others to prevent them from challenging CBSD’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies, while distracting attention from CBSD’s failures to abide by its responsibility to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all students,” the ACLU filing states.
Walczak said the trans student who was bullied was refusing to eat in the lunchroom for the rest of the school year because that’s where most of the bullying occurred. “And nobody would do anything to stop it. And the school knew that and saw that he was eating in the guidance office. And nobody once took the time to express concern and find out what’s going on or find out what it is they could do.”
Walczak said the district could also decide to try to improve the environment for all LGBTQ students, like passing inclusive policies and training teachers, but has failed to do so.
The Tuesday complaint alleges that Burgess has also faced retaliation involving the conduct of the school district in its investigation into the complaint the ACLU filed in October with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the district has created a hostile educational environment for LGBTQ students. The Duane Morris law firm is conducting the investigation for the district, and has interviewed at least eight teachers so far, according to Bill Senavaitis, president of the Central Bucks Education Association.
“Burgess fears that CBSD may even attempt to place blame for the poor treatment of LGBTQ+ students on him and other teachers who have been these students’ strongest, and sometimes only, advocates,” according to the complaint.
Burgess was known as an advocate for LGBTQ students, according to the complaint and students and teachers interviewed by WHYY News.
Lenape Middle School students protested outside the school after Burgess was suspended. Some students expressed opposition to the district’s decision during school board meetings as well.
One Lenape student who is trans and gay said at a May 2022 board meeting, “I lost one of the only people that has ever really cared for me — that really wanted to stay by my side and help me.”
In a statement to the school community, superintendent Lucabaugh and board president Dana Hunter said the students’ protests were an “abomination,” and the “narrative” about Burgess’s suspension was “inflammatory.”
But that’s not how Burgess or the ACLU sees it.
The complaint alleges that during an April disciplinary meeting, Central Bucks administration, particularly Lucabaugh, “sharply criticized Burgess for his actions regarding CBSD’s classroom library censorship efforts and his reporting of Student A’s bullying to OCR.”
“Instead of punishing Burgess, the district should be honoring him for being the caring and supportive teacher every student is lucky to have at some point in their education,” said Walczak. “The district needs to be held accountable for its brazen and illegal retaliation against an outstanding teacher.”
The ACLU claims Burgess’ suspension had repercussions across the school community. Walczak said the district has “intimidated all teachers and staff in Central Bucks.” Throughout the ACLU’s investigation, teachers were afraid to talk with the ACLU out of fear of being fired or suspended like Burgess, according to Walczak.
“The lawsuit is filed on behalf of Andrew Burgess, but Andrew Burgess is really representing a much larger group of individuals,” said Walczak. “And that’s the hard-working, dedicated professionals at Central Buck who are being prevented or intimidated from really being able to support and help LGBTQ+ students in the district.”
Editor’s note: The Duane Morris firm has represented WHYY.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!