PHILADELPHIA - In a new filing in federal court, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has accused the Central Bucks School District administration and their specially retained lawyers of misleading the public and even lying about facts in a report released last spring. The filing is the latest twist in a lawsuit filed in April against the district by teacher Andrew Burgess, who says that the district retaliated against him for advocating for a transgender student who endured harassment and bullying at school.
The amended complaint filed today is the most in-depth public statement by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Burgess since the release of the district’s internal investigation report in April. In the new filing, the ACLU and Burgess say that the teacher was suspended for violating a board policy that did not exist at the time and that the district’s attorneys handling the investigation never spoke with the involved student or his family, who could have corroborated Burgess’s account of the matter.
The ACLU and Burgess also told the federal district court in the filing that the district’s attorneys lied about the district not knowing about the complaint filed by Burgess on behalf of the student with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights until the attorneys conducted their investigation. A district administrator’s meeting notes from April 2022 reference a “form” from the Office for Civil Rights, and the ACLU’s own complaint filed with the office in October 2022 on behalf of seven students references a complaint filed by a teacher.
The district also falsely suggested that Burgess did not get the student’s parents’ permission to file the complaint, when, in fact, the complaint included a consent form signed by the student’s mother, according to the new filing.
“Time and time again, the district’s attorneys and administrators went out of their way to sully the reputation of an upstanding, wonderful teacher,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “They even went so far as to put on a show trial for the community in April, further damaging Andrew’s professional credibility. What they’ve done here is illegal retaliation. They were warned by the Office for Civil Rights not to retaliate against Andrew or anyone else who filed complaints, and they did it anyway, at the cost of over a million dollars to district taxpayers.”
In their report, the district’s attorneys suggested that Burgess failed to report child abuse, in violation of state law, but the amended complaint notes that the reported behavior did not meet the statutory definition of child abuse, and, if it did, the district had an independent obligation to report it, too, which they didn’t. The filing also notes that the administration knew about the harassment of the student because he had previously reported it to school officials and they did not improve the student’s situation.
“Accusing a teacher of failing to report abuse is a serious matter, and doing so in a specially scheduled, live-streamed, and highly public way is traumatic and damaging for everyone involved, especially Andrew,” Walczak said. “The district’s attorneys played fast and loose with the law and the facts in order to build a sympathetic public narrative for their client. The district got what they paid for - a one-sided investigation that was never intended to take seriously the allegations of a hostile environment for LGBTQ students at Central Bucks. They wanted to scapegoat Andrew to distract from their egregious failure to support LGBTQ+ students in the district.”
Burgess has been suspended with pay twice by the district, first in May 2022 before being reassigned to a different school in the district and again in April 2023 after the release of the district’s internal investigation. He is still suspended with no indication if or when that will be lifted.
The complaint accuses the district of violating Burgess’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Pennsylvania Constitution. Burgess has asked the court to order that he be reinstated to his previous teaching position at Lenape Middle School and that all references to discipline against him be removed from his personnel file. The lawsuit also asks the court to order the district and Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh to pay compensatory and punitive damages to Burgess.
More information about this case, including the latest filing, is available at aclupa.org/Burgess.