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Pa. School District Allegedly Discriminated Against LGBTQ+ Students

Central Bucks School District Sign
Photo by Michele C. Haddon/Bucks County Courier Times/USA Today Network

The Pennsylvania ACLU filed a federal complaint against the Central Bucks School District alleging it targets trans and nonbinary students.

(CNN) -- A Pennsylvania school district is under fire for allegedly discriminating against LGBTQ students.

After a months-long investigation, the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint Thursday with the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division on behalf of seven transgender and nonbinary students in the Central Bucks School District, accusing the state's fourth-largest district of illegal gender discrimination in maintaining, perpetuating and exacerbating what the civil rights organization deems a hostile education environment for LGBTQ+ students.

"We spoke to dozens of students, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, and community stakeholders," said Witold J. Walczak, the Pennsylvania ACLU legal director. "Trans and nonbinary and LGBTQ+ students are harassed, bullied, persistently, severely and the school district historically has done very little to help and support these students."

The complaint indicates administrators were well-aware of the hostile environment, quoting Superintendent Abram M. Lucabaugh's comment at a school board meeting in May that for LGBTQ+ students "a successful day is getting through the day and not being harassed." The filing argues the district's treatment of LGBTQ+ students has been "at best indifferent" and says it has more recently become "overtly discriminatory and hostile" with tragic consequences, citing multiple serious incidents of student self-harm, including a trans student attempting to take his life at school in 2019.

The district's superintendent declined to comment explicitly on the complaint.

"We believe it is paramount that all students and teachers are cared for and respected as members of our learning and teaching community," said Superintendent Abram M. Lucabaugh, Ed.D., "With regard to yesterday's filing, we do not comment on legal matters."

CNN reached out to the Departments of Justice and Education and to the school board president and did not receive an immediate response.

'Extremists' on school board

Walczak said "extremists" who won election to the Central Bucks school board last year had an agenda aimed at targeting LGBTQ+ students.

"Since the election of new school board members in November 2021, the new board and central administration have adopted policies and taken actions that target LGBTQ+ students, like directing removal of pride flags as inappropriate "political symbols," intimidating teachers into removing LGBTQ+ themed resource materials from their classrooms, directing teachers not to use preferred names and pronouns unless the student has parental consent," the complaint says.

While details on the claims made by the seven Central Bucks students are redacted, because they are minors, the filing includes other explicit examples of alleged discrimination, like the district's decision to suspend a teacher in a highly public way -- the complaint called it a "perp walk" -- after the teacher helped a trans student file a report with the Office for Civil Rights. The district also passed new library and textbook policies focused on "sexualized content" that the complaint calls a thinly disguised effort to censor LGBTQ+-themed materials.

The Pennsylvania ACLU is asking that the Justice Department or the Department of Education investigate the hostile environment in the school district and order it to take remedial measures recommended by the DOE for supporting transgender and other gender non-conforming youth in school, including using welcoming and inclusive language that is free from discrimination and harassment. The complaint, which argues many of the district's policies run counter to the DOE'S recommendations, also asks that the district provide mandatory training for staff, the administration and the board on supporting LGBTQ+ youth.

A nationwide battle

The filing is the latest salvo in a nationwide battle over education policies regulating everything from which books school libraries can offer to what teachers and students can say or display in the classroom. The American Library Association reports attempts to ban books are on the rise in schools across the country and could even surpass the record set in 2021. Meanwhile, lawmakers in several states, often driven by conservative activists, have introduced legislation that would limit classroom instruction.

Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what critics call the "don't say gay" law in March, banning classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or an a manner that is not age- or developmentally appropriate. The move inspiring legislators in other states, like Ohio, to take similar steps.

And in August, a Wisconsin school district affirmed a ban on teachers displaying Pride materials in classrooms or writing their pronouns in email signatures, deeming those acts political and in Texas that same month, a school district approved restrictions on how race and gender are discussed, including allowing teachers to call students by pronouns that do not match their gender identity. The board also set rules for multiple-occupancy bathrooms that require they be designated for and used only by persons based on their biological sex -- policies the ACLU of Texas described as "egregious."

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