Audience members waving Pride flags while a parent spoke during the public comment period of the Central Bucks School District meeting May 10, 2022. The parent was offering an opposing viewpoint to the majority of the other speakers who said the district had taken a range of actions harmful to LGBTQ students.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania Thursday filed a complaint with the United States Department of Justice and Department of Education, saying the district for years has perpetuated a “hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students,” particularly transgender students.

The 71-page complaint — including 26 pages of redacted student testimony — is filed on behalf of seven Central Bucks students, and details incidents of bullying, prejudiced school board policies, and ignored attempts to seek help from school staff and administrators, which the ACLU says contributes to discrimination based on sex and the violation of students’ Title IX and 14th Amendment rights.

» READ MORE: Central Bucks parents protest removal of Pride flags and other actions they say are hostile to LGBTQ students

The complaint requests the agencies order Central Bucks, Pennsylvania’s fourth-largest district, to follow federal recommendations including: Use welcoming and inclusive language, ensure policies affirm students’ right to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, adopt policies that respect all students’ gender identities and guide school staff on how to support students and communicate with families, facilitate opportunities for LGBTQ students to find peer and teacher support, and provide professional development opportunities for teachers to support LGBTQ youth.

“These children deserve a safe environment where they can learn and be their full selves without fear of being bullied by other students,” said Witold Walczak, legal director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, rather than combat the toxic educational environment faced by LGBTQ+ students in Central Bucks, a new school board majority and the administration have exacerbated the problems with new homophobic and transphobic policies that have heightened the climate of fear for this group of students and supportive staff.”

Through interviews over five months with dozens of LGBTQ students and parents, current and former teachers, staff, and community stakeholders, Witold and ACLU lawyer Richard T. Ting said they have documented a “pattern of pervasive and often serious harassment and bullying of LGBTQ students” in many of the district’s 23 schools.

Examples, they said, include administrators ordering teachers to remove pride flags last spring from classrooms, instructing teachers to ignore students’ preferred names and pronouns unless they have parent permission, moving an in-school health class to an online video after a non-binary student requested to participate in the girls’ class, ignoring students’ complaints of bullying, and suspending a teacher who tried to help a bullied trans student file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

In a statement at the time the teacher was suspended, Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh wrote that “the insinuation that our district would single out a teacher and take disciplinary action because the teacher supports LGBTQIA+ students is defamatory.” Lucabaugh said then that the district was conducting an evaluation of the situation, and that staff must adhere to a district process for reporting bullying. In the ACLU’s complaint Thursday, lawyers wrote that nobody from the Central Bucks administration had reached out to the bullied student or his family about rectifying the conditions.

» READ MORE: Opinion: I’m a trans teen in Central Bucks. Here, it doesn’t ‘get better.’

Bullying between students increased noticeably in the past years, the ACLU’s lawyers said, and harassed students opted to eat lunch in bathrooms and classrooms over the cafeteria, where they reported mistreatment ran rampant. The ACLU also found multiple incidents of self-harm in LGBTQ Central Bucks students who had been bullied, and that one bullied trans student attempted suicide.

In addition, the complaint states that the district has created an “atmosphere of fear and intimidation that deters staff from supporting LGBTQ+ students,” turning down staff requests for workshops and cutting ties with programming and grant-making for teachers to learn to better support transgender students.

» READ MORE: The Central Bucks school board denied a counselor’s request to attend training on transgender inclusivity. So parents raised the money themselves.

Many teachers, the complaint said, have reported self-censorship, packing up classroom materials or books with LGBTQ+ themes in fear of discipline. Some school staff members declined to speak with ACLU attorneys or only on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the district’s board or administration, the filing said.

The ACLU also alleges that since the fraught November 2021 election that ushered in several new members, the majority-Republican Central Bucks school board and district administration have taken actions that target LGBTQ+ students. Those actions, the ACLU said, include enacting new library and textbook policies as a “thinly disguised” way to remove LGBTQ+ content from shelves, and currently contemplating a staff “advocacy” policy that would prohibit teacher discussion and “decor” on sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion unless it is specific to the class. The policy, the ACLU said, is “plainly” intended to discourage support of teachers and staff for LGBTQ+ students. The board is expected to discuss the policy at a school board meeting this week, the ACLU said.

» READ MORE: Central Bucks has approved a library policy targeting ‘sexualized content’ in books. Here’s what we know.

Now that the ACLU’s claim has been submitted, the federal agencies will conduct preliminary reviews to decide whether to investigate the complaints into the Central Bucks District.

Separately, last week, the Pennridge School District — also in Bucks County — enacted a staff advocacy policy instructing teachers to remove pride flags, crosses and geopolitical symbols from classrooms and hallways. The ACLU has said it is monitoring that move closely.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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