Central Bucks School District Embarrassed Itself with Show Trial of ACLU LGBTQ Discrimination Complaint

The “sham investigation” commissioned by the right-wing school board majority was never about uncovering the truth, it was about creating a political prop for upcoming elections.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About five months ago, the US Department of Education announced that it would be conducting an investigation into the ACLU’s allegations that Central Bucks School District was creating a “hostile” environment for LGBTQ students. After the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigation was announced, the school board majority swiftly voted to hire Duane Morris law firm, which includes the services of William McSwain (a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate) to investigate the allegations at CBSD. McSwain, who was appointed by former President Trump, had previously gained notoriety for defending the Boy Scouts in discriminating against gay kids and for calling a middle school Gender-Sexuality Alliance student club “leftist political indoctrination.” 

READ: It Takes A Village: Expelling Right-Wing Extremism From Bucks County School Districts

At Thursday’s special meeting called by the School Board, Michael Rinaldi presented the findings on behalf of himself and McSwain – which the board will have spent over $1 million for. In a two-hour monologue, Rinaldi went through and discounted every allegation of discrimination made by the ACLU. He insisted that, despite the harassment and harmful policies that LGBTQ students have repeatedly mentioned at school board meetings (and in the ACLU complaint), despite what Superintendent Dr. Abram Lucabaugh himself has said about how LGBTQ kids are treated in our schools, despite the ACLU’s claims of a “hostile” environment for LGBTQ kids, CBSD has done no wrong and is, in fact, exemplary in its treatment of LGBTQ students. This conclusion goes directly against the results of the PAYS data which revealed a 122 percent increase in bullying because of sexual orientation in 2021.  

As noted in the ACLU complaint:

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Rinaldi spent the majority of his time trying to refute the claims that former Lenape Middle School teacher, Andrew Burgess, was unfairly disciplined for helping a trans student. He cited cherry-picked and heavily redacted interviews, emails, and other evidence to present the narrative that Burgess acted improperly by not divulging relevant student information to administrators. 

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See tweet:

Mr. Rinaldi concluded by saying that Burgess should be fired without pay for his actions and speculated (without evidence) that Burgess had an ulterior motive. It was as if Rinaldi was Judge, Jury, and Executioner. If Burgess did, in fact, commit such egregious offenses, wouldn’t the district have simply fired him themselves? They certainly have not hesitated to penalize him in the past. Surely we didn’t need a million dollar presentation for an internal staff issue.

ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walczak weighed in on Thursday’s political theater. His full statement is as follows:

“A credible investigation would not have hired people who have an obvious bias against the trans and non-binary students who lodged the complaint. Credible interviewers would not have told witnesses that the district’s recent homophobic policies were legal and reasonable, or they would have argued over that point with the witnesses. A real investigation would not have ignored the staff who are most likely familiar with the problems, like LGBTQ+-student-group advisors, most of whom were never questioned. Honest interviewers would not have tried to undermine most of what the witnesses told them, especially when it didn’t fit their preconceived narrative.

Since the just-concluded investigation did all of those things, its conclusions are worthless. This was a dishonest investigation from the beginning. The board majority set it up to defend the status quo, and that’s exactly what the report does. This was a political defense of the district’s discriminatory practices, not an unbiased investigation into the ACLU’s allegations that the district maintains a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students that violates federal civil rights laws.  

In the one interview I witnessed, the district’s lawyer candidly admitted that his team was not examining the impact of the board’s recent anti-LGBTQ+ actions because they are, in his words, lawful and reasonable. He argued with witnesses to support the board majority’s policies.  He repeatedly tried to poke holes in what the witnesses told him. To the extent the board majority and superintendent deserved any benefit of the doubt, this charade shows that their discrimination is purposeful and intentional. They have no desire to fix the harmful environment facing LGBTQ+ students in the Central Bucks School District.

The ACLU fully expects that the U.S. Department of Education will conclude, after reviewing the evidence fairly and honestly, that Central Bucks is systematically and intentionally violating students’ civil rights. All students can and must be provided a safe and supportive environment. Today’s report is a disappointment, but, given the board majority’s actions over the past 18 months, it’s not a surprise. Our efforts to support all students will continue.”

The timing of last night’s meeting was of note for several reasons. First and foremost, it occurred during a night when it was nearly impossible for two members of the board minority to attend. Karen Smith was on vacation, and Dr. Mariam Mahmud intended to celebrate one of the holiest nights of the Muslim calendar with her family. Both board members attended, despite the extreme inconveniences.

Listen: The Signal Podcast – The Right’s Long War on Public Education, with Jennifer Berkshire

Secondly, the special meeting occurred during Lenape’s National Junior Honor Society induction, prohibiting many community members from attending, a fact that is particularly interesting considering that so much of the presentation was in praise of Lenape Principal Geanine Saullo and against Burgess. This choice of dates prevented many Lenape families both from defending Burgess, who is beloved in the Lenape community, and calling into question Saullo, who has drawn criticism from many Lenape families. 

Lastly, and perhaps most tellingly, the meeting was called just a few days after the ACLU filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Central Bucks School District on behalf of Burgess. It’s no wonder that so much of the presentation was spent attempting to discredit him. In fact, the entire evening felt more like a show trial than a neutral release and summary of information. 

Rinaldi himself noted that his experience is primarily as a prosecutor. What sort of trial happens without the accused present? Without any representation for the “other side” at all? 

Making a bad situation worse, when members of the board minority spoke against the accusatory and biased presentation, they were shut down, booed, and ignored. In fact, school board member Jim Pepper went so far as to call his colleague Smith a “psychopath” in a misogynistic outburst. It is of note that, in a meeting claiming CBSD does not have an issue with bullying, neither Board President Dana Hunter nor Superintendent Lucabaugh, reprimanded Pepper for his abusive and bullying behavior. And so much for Lucabaugh’s recent district-wide call for civility to “restore what has been eroded.” 

Moreso, any claims that last night was simply a disclosure of the facts are inaccurate. Lawyers do not present “facts”, they present evidence that supports their client’s case. When one lawyer is someone who previously protected the Boy Scouts in barring gay kids, obviously the “evidence” will be even more biased. Last night’s “presentation” was, as expected, a million-dollar campaign stunt for the right-wing school board candidates.

READ: Today, Tomorrow, And Yesterday As A Transgender Youth – In Bucks County And Across The Country

The board majority’s law firm did not present an unbiased review of facts, they prepared and presented their defense of the majority. Instead of actually addressing and attempting to rectify the issues presented by the ACLU, they attempted to blame Karen Smith for the OCR investigations because of an email she sent to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona – an email that did not even get a response. The fact is that if the board majority simply let their librarians (many of whom were critics of their policy revisions) do their jobs, listened to our children, and allowed teachers to advocate for our most marginalized student groups, this million-dollar waste of taxpayer money could have been avoided.

It’s also no coincidence that these “findings” were released at the height of election season, something this board majority seems keenly aware of. At a recent meeting, Smith tried to briefly clarify statements she had made about the library policy and was shouted down and accused of “campaigning” by the majority. Her relevant commentary cost our district nothing, and yet, the board majority prevented her from making it. Meanwhile, this same board majority just spent over a million dollars of our money and over three hours of our time to conduct what was, in essence, a campaign night for the right-wing candidates for November’s election. 

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Are you ok with your taxpayer money being spent to campaign for school board candidates?

Are you ok with paying for one-sided and potentially defamatory report from clearly biased Republican lawyers?

Are you ok with our right-wing school board majority (and superintendent) conducting a kangaroo court trial of a teacher who is not even present to defend himself?

I know I’m not.

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Lela Casey

Lela Casey has been writing professionally for over a decade. Her work has included entertainment journalism, scientific articles, and historical profiles. She has spent the last few years dedicated to making Bucks County a more tolerant, inclusive place for everyone.

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