Central Bucks students, parents, and community members accused the district during a school board meeting Tuesday of creating a hostile environment for LGBTQ children — including by demanding the removal of Pride flags from classrooms — and called for the reinstatement of a teacher students described as a key ally.
From allegations that the district had shifted its policy on names and pronouns for transgender students, to the suspension of the middle-school teacher said to have been trying to help a transgender student facing bullying, speakers pressed the board on its commitment to LGBTQ youth during two hours of public comment.
“The district is supposed to be supporting students in its care. Instead, it’s been politicized,” said one speaker, Julie Davis, after describing a “disturbing direction” in the district with regard to LGBTQ students. “These policies are hurting children that are already vulnerable and marginalized.”
Referring to “official and unofficial anti-LGBTQ actions implemented by this district,” Jodi Schwartz, a parent and former school board member, told the board that “many of you are extremely vocal about your individual rights, insisting on your parental rights, your freedom to choose what’s best for your family.”
“If you truly believe what you preach ... why do you insist that anyone who is an ally or champion of the LGBTA+ community be silenced and hidden in our buildings?” Schwartz said.
Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh addressed some of the allegations during the meeting, referring to “swirling narratives” that he said were “pulling support and focus away from students who need it.”
“There are narratives out there, that we are forcing the removal of flags in classrooms because we don’t care about transgender students, students who are struggling with their sexuality,” Lucabaugh said. “I can tell you right now, hanging a flag doesn’t do anything to keep a kid safe.” He added that “we can agree to disagree on this, but classrooms absolutely need to be apolitical. I don’t want to see Make America Great flags hanging, I don’t want to see Biden flags hanging.”
Lucabaugh is in charge of a district that has been a hotbed of controversy over issues that have been dividing school communities nationally: from debates over masking to challenges to sexually explicit books. After fraught campaigns that drew big money and national attention, Republicans cemented their majority on the school board last fall.
The superintendent, who took over in August, on Tuesday did not directly address allegations that the district was now requiring that transgender or gender nonconforming students participating in Human Growth and Development classes attend those in line with their sex assigned at birth. But he said the district was “trying to do a better job in how we deliver that curriculum” and would soon tell parents more.
And of the “narrative out there” that “the district has arbitrarily and capriciously punished an employee for being a supporter of LGBTQ students, that narrative is offensive. It’s categorically false,” Lucabaugh said. He said the district would not comment on a staff member’s employment status.
Lucabaugh didn’t name any employee. But numerous students and parents spoke out in favor of Lenape Middle School teacher Andrew Burgess, who they said had been suspended from his job teaching social studies on Friday. An online petition with more than 3,000 signatures calling for his reinstatement alleged that Burgess was suspended “for giving a trans student a phone number to call if they felt unsafe or bullied.”
A district spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Burgess didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
Larissa Hopwood, whose transgender son used to attend Lenape and remains friends with students at the school, said in an interview that she received a text message last Wednesday from a trans student at the school, upset by a new policy imposing rules over when teachers may start referring to a student by a different name or pronoun. (“Over the years, the guidance about this topic has been evolving,” Lenape Middle School principal Geanine Saullo said in a May 3 email that was shared with The Inquirer. “Now, there is more of a formal process in place and we ask that students must start with guidance before we start using a different name or pronoun.”)
A family member of the trans student then reached out to the school to request a meeting with the principal, and named Burgess as a “great ally and advocate,” Hopwood said. Then on Friday, she got a text from the student, saying that Burgess had been suspended and wondering, “Is it my fault?”
“He helps so many different kids,” Hopwood said, noting that she’s been getting calls from parents telling her “my child’s in tears” and questioning the reason for the teacher’s departure. Some students have also been protesting outside Lenape Middle School this week.
Among the students who spoke in support of Burgess on Tuesday was Julien Jones, who said that after coming out as trans this year, he had been harassed and threatened by fellow students. Guidance counselors told him “they’re immature, they’ll grow out of it,” Jones said. But when he told Burgess he was being misgendered, the teacher “was on top of it,” he said. “He asked me how I wanted to be supported. He wanted me to feel safe.”
When Burgess was suspended, Jones said, “I lost one of the only people who has ever really cared for me.”
A Lenape graduate and current senior at American University in Washington, Judah Featherman, told the board he drove four hours to call for “justice for Mr. Burgess,” whom he credited with giving “a slacker C student” confidence and helping him turn his academic career around.
Others pushed back on Lucabaugh’s comments about flags in classrooms — saying the Pride flag wasn’t political, but a human rights statement. “Taking the flag down is political,” said school board member Karen Smith, one of three Democrats on the nine-member board who said Tuesday night that they opposed recent actions and policies regarding LGBTQ students taken by the district.
Despite the superintendent’s remark that a flag doesn’t keep kids safe, “it does make them feel more seen,” said student Zandi Hall. “And they don’t feel seen at all right now.”
Some parents and community members said it wasn’t the district’s role to teach children about sexual orientation — which they likened to “promoting sexuality” — and said other students who weren’t LGBTQ also dealt with bullying.
“Whether they call you he, she, it, furry — you can’t control what other people decide to call you,” parent Vonna DeArmond said. “You can’t be a victim. Not every space is going to be a safe space.”
The board was scheduled Wednesday night to discuss another topic likely to stir debate: a draft policy describing “sexualized content” as inappropriate for school libraries, and specifying that no library materials should contain “visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts” or “explicit written descriptions of sexual acts.”