LGBTQ+ kids’ lives don’t matter in the Central Bucks School District. That’s the only logical conclusion one can draw from the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s 70-page complaint filed last week with the Civil Rights Divisions of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.
According to the complaint, which is the result of a five-month investigation that included interviews with dozens of students, family members, current and former teachers and other school staff, and community stakeholders, LGBTQ+ students’ civil rights – enshrined by Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment – are being violated.
“Not only do we have a school district that fails to protect and support these kids, but now they’re taking all sorts of actions to basically say, there’s something wrong with you … we can’t have your books. We can’t have anybody showing support for you. We’re not even going to honor you by using your name or your pronoun,” ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walczak told the Bucks County Beacon.
The “severe bullying and harassment” that has led to a hostile environment for these students shouldn’t come as a surprise to those following the “School Board Wars” in the third largest district in the state, especially after “the school board was captured by extremists,” as Walczak put it.
They are extremists.
Three of the newly elected far-right school board members – Debra Cannon, Lisa Sciscio, and Jim Pepper – were endorsed by a local Three Percent militia cell called the Proud American Patriots Network. This same militia group is behind the book banning group Woke PA, from which far-right parents and their allies on the board have been taking their cues from. Cannon and Sciscio are also members of Moms for Liberty, the far-right book banning group with ties to the January 6th Insurrection and Christian Nationalists and whose members are known for their anti-LGBTQ hate and bigotry.
Cannon also actually compared Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to Nazism and previously said at a school board meeting while a candidate “there are Demonic adults recruiting, brainwashing, and participating in unconscionable behaviors with children, and every one of you know it.”
Another school board member suggested at the last policy meeting that it’s not the LGBTQ kids the community should be worried about – despite their repeated pleas for help.
“Conservative kids don’t feel safe either, we just don’t have them lined up at our podium all the time to speak … Do you think white, Christian boys aren’t marginalized these days?” said school board member Sharon Collopy at a policy committee meeting.
I am actually glad Collopy said it because it unmasks the board majority’s priorities.
“Support for LGBTQ+ youth is non-negotiable,” Marlene Pray, Director and Founder of Planned Parenthood Keystone’s Rainbow Room, told the Bucks County Beacon.
At least it should be. This somehow is sadly lost on Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh (and obviously the right-wing school board majority). Lucabaugh can give generic statements to the press stating that he “believe[s] it is paramount that all students and teachers are cared for and respected as members of our learning and teaching community,” but when his actions contradict that either he is lying or incapable of seeing what’s right in front of his face. And as Pray noted, there are consequences.
“LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience bullying and discrimination than their counterparts,” she added.
This is absolutely true. And all it takes is compassionate, caring, and affirming school boards and superintendents to combat this trend.
“We want to make sure that LGBTQ+ youth feel safe and supported. That means using their self-selected pronouns, honoring their chosen gender identities, allowing students to display Pride flags and recognizing that books with LGBTQ+ characters are not wrong – they represent real youth!” said Pray. “And when youth see themselves, their identities are validated. These actions are immensely important to validating their identities as LGBTQ+ youth.”
This is why the ACLU complaint is so important. If either the Department of Justice or Department of Education decide to follow up and ultimately agree with ACLU’s Walczak’s assessment “that there is a pattern and practice of failure to protect LGBTQ+ youth from severe and pervasive bullying and harassment” – which I believe they will – this could lead the district to roll back its policies and practices of anti-LBTQ discrimination. However, if it digs its heels in and still refuses to make changes then they’ll likely be taken to court.
One other thing we know about the district’s current leadership that could impact this situation is that it is vindictive. An example of this is noted in the complaint and had been reported on previously. A Lenape Middle School teacher known to be an advocate for LGBTQ+ students was suspended for seemingly directing a bullied student to the U.S. Department Office of Civil Rights – suspended on the exact day he was scheduled to speak to the Office of Civil Rights on behalf of the student. The teacher, after months in exile, was finally brought back, although the district never identified any policy or protocol that he allegedly violated. The ACLU has a message for CBSD if it is entertaining any retaliation to district staff or families cooperating with the civil rights organization: Don’t.
“What we just filed is peanuts compared to the legal artillery we have if they retaliate against any of our clients or our witnesses,” said Walczak. “And to the extent we see retaliation against anybody that’s working with us, the school board can be sure that we will see their butts in federal court in Philadelphia.”
In the meantime, this right-wing backlash to LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance is not going away any time soon. Folks need to keep showing up at meetings, keep supporting teachers and staff who are allies (and there are quite a few in Central Bucks), keep hanging flags and signs, keep writing letters, keep organizing, and keep voting. Then maybe, just maybe, some time in the near future an LGBTQ+ student in Central Bucks School District won’t feel so scared that they feel they have to eat lunch in the bathroom.