The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal complaint Thursday alleging one of the largest school districts in the state has created a widespread culture of discrimination toward LGBTQ students, particularly those who are transgender and nonbinary.
In the complaint, which is partially redacted to protect students’ privacy, lawyers representing seven unnamed students say a monthslong investigation uncovered that the Central Bucks School District has chronically failed to address what they call “persistent and severe” bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students. The lawyers interviewed dozens of LGBTQ students and their parents, as well as current and former teachers and staff.
The complaint alleges sex-based discrimination that violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title IX, a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in any education program receiving federal funds.
In a statement to NBC News, Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh said the district does not comment on legal matters. He added, however, that the district believes it is “paramount that all students and teachers are cared for and respected as members of our learning and teaching community.”
During a school board meeting in May, many LGBTQ students described being called slurs, threatened and misgendered, among other forms of harassment, the complaint says. The bullying forced some of them to miss school, and in 2019, a former transgender student attempted suicide, according to the complaint.
Vic Walczak, a lawyer for ACLU Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the complaint, told NBC News he was made aware of several other alleged instances of students being hospitalized after facing anti-LGBTQ harassment.
“Since we’ve filed this, I’ve gotten a couple of more complaints from staff,” he said. “Everybody’s asking the question, ‘Why is this going on?’”
Filed in the civil rights branches of the Education and Justice departments, the complaint is the culmination of longstanding concerns, heightened over the past year with the election of a new school board, over the safety and well-being of LGBTQ students across the district’s 23 schools.
Serving more than 18,000 students, Central Bucks drew national attention in 2021 as debates over pandemic policies gave way to larger culture-war clashes in the community. That November, three Republican school board candidates were elected with the financial support of a Central Bucks parent and conservative donor who spent half a million dollars to sway last year’s school board races, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Since the election, anti-LGBTQ harassment has worsened, the complaint says. The board and other school administrators have enacted a number of policies that critics label anti-LGBTQ.
In May, students and faculty protested after the principal of a middle school in the district sent an email to teachers directing them to use the names and pronouns of students that appeared in the school’s database when handing out awards. That database, in some cases, has information that does not align with students’ chosen names or pronouns, the complaint says. The same month, a middle school teacher at the school who had supported LGBTQ students was suddenly placed on a leave of absence for unclear reasons, prompting anger in the community, according to the complaint and WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station.
At the start of the school year, the name guidance was expanded to a “complete prohibition on using affirming names and pronouns,” according to the complaint.
Other policies recently passed by the school board include limits on sex education and a ban on books deemed “inappropriate” because of their “sexualized content.” Critics, including the ACLU Pennsylvania lawyers, fear the latter will target LGBTQ-related books.
Amid a surge in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy in school boards across the country, Walczak said, the alleged circumstances at Central Bucks are not an isolated situation.
“I don’t know the cause,” he said. “All I know is that it’s sickening. People need to remember that we’re dealing with children.”