ACLU files federal complaint over alleged LGBTQ discrimination in Central Bucks School District

The ACLU of Pennsylvania on behalf of seven students filed a complaint against the Central Bucks School District to the civil rights divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education. The students allege a “widespread culture of discrimination against LGBQ&T students, particularly transgender and nonbinary students.”

ACLU of Pa. lawyers carried out a five-month investigation consisting of interviews with dozens of students, family members, community stakeholders, and current and past teachers and staffers who painted a picture of an educational culture that is harmful to LGBTQ+ students and made worse by anti-LGBTQ school board policies and actions. 

The complaint is based on sex and the violation of students’ rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments. In it, the ACLU alleges that the school district has fostered a toxic educational environment by discontinuing relationships with nonprofit organizations that facilitate conversations about acceptance and belonging; banning Pride flags; telling teachers to use students’ dead names and misgender them unless the students’ parents object; implementing new library policies set to ban books and educational materials with LGBTQ content; and reprimanding staffers who openly criticize the district’s bigoted policies or provide support for students who have encountered bullying and harassment. 

“As a [Central Bucks School District] graduate, I’m ashamed and heartbroken for the families in my hometown,” said Beckie Schatschneider, who co-leads the Gender Awareness and Inclusion Network (GAIN). “The cruelty being directed at their kids and their kids’ friends will do extraordinary damage and is so unnecessary. As the parent of a queer, non-binary child, I am so relieved to be raising my family elsewhere and so angry on behalf of everyone who can’t. I’m glad the ACLU is stepping up and will be donating to support their work, and encourage everyone who can to do so as well.”

Additionally, high ranking individuals in the district have denied requests from students, parents and teachers to administer district-wide training for staff on how to provide support for LGBTQ+ students and implement policies that would impede discrimination. 

“The students we represent share a common theme: they’ve endured persistent and often severe bullying by peers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a press release. “The bullying was ignored by key school administrators and staff when the students sought help. The climate has become so bad in some school buildings that trans students are afraid to eat in the cafeteria and even go to school. This is no way to educate and treat children. It’s immoral, unethical, and illegal.”

In its complaint, the ACLU representatives ask that the Department of Justice and the Department of Education order the Central Bucks School District, at minimum, to follow the measures recommended by the U.S. Department of Education on how to support trans and gender non-conforming students in school. Those measures include using welcoming and inclusive language in school mission statements; making sure that school policies overtly affirm students’ rights to be free of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in all elements of school; implementing policies that respect all students’ gender identity and secure student’s privacy; administering policies or model plans that advise school staff on how to support students and communicate with families; and fostering opportunities for students get support from peers, teachers and faculty. They also request that the school district take any other necessary measure to rectify the destructive environment that the district has created.  

“We admire the courage of the plaintiffs and their families, because it takes so much to stand up publicly against hatred and cruelty, especially as a child,” the co-leaders of GAIN said collectively in a statement. “Every family can and should stand in solidarity with them. Speak out at school board meetings, on social media, in your local paper, and your houses of worship. Model for our kids the world we want for them — one where each person is respected, valued, and included.”

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Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events. Her work has been recognized by the Keystone Media Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, National Newspaper Association, and more. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA in journalism from Temple University. She has been on staff with PGN since January 2020 and previously worked as a freelancer.