PHILADELPHIA - A middle school teacher filed a federal civil rights lawsuit today against the Central Bucks School District, after district administrators began retaliating against him last year for advocating for a transgender student who was being harassed and bullied.
The teacher, Andrew Burgess, filed a complaint at the behest of a transgender student and his family with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in March 2022 after administrators failed to address repeated harassment by classmates. The district responded by suspending Burgess in May, informing him that his employment status was under review, and then reassigning him from Lenape Middle School, where he had taught since 2006, to Unami Middle School just days before the start of the 2022-23 school year. The new assignment included switching from teaching eighth grade to seventh, new course material, and an increase in the total number of students in his classes.
Burgess also opposed apparent efforts to censor teachers’ classroom library materials that dealt with LGBTQ+ themes. He expressed his concerns to district leaders multiple times, and, when his building principal sought to meet individually with teachers who maintained a classroom library in March 2022, Burgess, who is a union leader, suggested that the principal instead hold a group meeting with teachers on the issue.
"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. “That's why teachers get into this work, to support, guide, and nurture our students.
The lawsuit states that the district has violated both the First Amendment and Title IX, by retaliating against Burgess for his speech and for reporting discrimination on the basis of sex. Burgess is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC.
“This particular student's experiences had been reported to the administration repeatedly. But 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 has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ students at Central Bucks, where bullying of those students has increased in recent years. His advocacy relating to the classroom library efforts and his support for the student who was the subject of the civil rights complaint led to a disciplinary meeting in April 2022 that included district Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh, who criticized Burgess’s advocacy.
When the district suspended Burgess in May, he was removed from the school campus in the middle of the school day, something witnessed by staff and students, which was highly unusual for someone who was not a safety threat. Administrators also confiscated his laptop, ordered him to not communicate with his colleagues, and banned him from district property.
“Central Bucks is retaliating against Andrew Burgess because he helped a trans student file a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education to address severe harassment that the district persistently ignored,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “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.
“The district needs to be held accountable for its brazen and illegal retaliation against an outstanding teacher.”
“Andrew Burgess stood up for the LGBTQ+ students of the school district,” said Eli Segal, an attorney with LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC. “And now we are proud to stand up for him.”
Today’s filing comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, in response to a complaint filed in October 2022 by the ACLU of Pennsylvania. That complaint alleged that the district has ignored and even fostered a hostile environment toward LGBTQ+ students.
The lawsuit, Burgess v. Central Bucks School District, et al., was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Burgess is represented by Walczak and Richard T. Ting of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Eli Segal and John Stapleton from the law firm LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC, and Seth Kreimer of University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.
A copy of the complaint filed today is available at aclupa.org/Burgess.