Central Bucks School District reaches settlement with suspended pro-LGBTQ+ teacher

In May 2022, Andrew Burgess, a middle school teacher for the Central Bucks School District (CBSD), was suspended from his job under what was perceived as questionable circumstances. Burgess subsequently sued CBSD, citing wrongful termination, civil-rights violations and other charges. As of March 12, it was announced that CBSD had settled the suit with Burgess.

The terms of the settlement reached between CBSD and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which represented Burgess, included a substantial cash award, legal fees, reinstatement of Burgess’ job, and several more points that address various other issues. 

In the lawsuit, Burgess maintained that he was suspended because of the support and assistance he provided a trans CBSD student who was being bullied, as well as support he was providing other LGBTQ+ students in the school.

In a statement released to the public, Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania said, “This settlement is a win for Andrew Burgess and for teachers everywhere who fearlessly defend their students’ right to be their full, authentic selves. We are pleased that the district’s new leadership has recognized that Andrew Burgess’s work to create a welcoming and nurturing environment for all students, regardless of who they are or their personal circumstances, is one of the school community’s greatest assets.”

Origins of the suit

The origins of the conflict between Burgess and the school district comes down to the politics of CBSD’s board which, until last November, was dominated by an extremist Republican majority. That board sometimes garnered national headlines for the aggressiveness of its anti-LGBTQ+ policies, which included the frequent banning of LGBTQ-themed books, its policy forbidding any signage or acknowledgment of Pride by students or faculty, and policies specifically targeting trans students.

Burgess was a vocal critic and opponent of the board’s reactionary actions. He often assisted LGBTQ+ students in opposing the board’s policies. What brought the matter to a head was, in April 2022, Burgess filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the behest of a trans student and the student’s family. The student was being bullied and claimed that CBSD administrators had repeatedly failed to address the harassment. (So far, OCR has not issued a finding on the trans student’s complaint.)

CBSD immediately responded by suspending Burgess in May 2022, informing him that his employment status was under review. He was, in fact, escorted from the school building under guard, in full view of the student body and faculty. The district then hired lawyers with a history of anti-LGBTQ+ statements and work from the law firm Duane Morris LLP to conduct an “investigation” into the events leading to Burgess’ suspension. The Duane Morris lawyers never spoke to any students, but, according to the ACLU PA, their report nonetheless included numerous false allegations about Mr. Burgess’ support of his students.

CBSD Republicans had to fork over $1.75 million to Duane Morris for the firm’s work on the report.

Resolution and terms of the settlement 

However, the situation changed dramatically with the November 2023 elections. Voters ousted most of the old board, installing a new board that was overwhelmingly Democrat. The new board has wasted no time rescinding many of the anti-LGBTQ+ policies of the previous board.

As part of its house cleaning of the previous board’s messes, the board voted 6-1 to accept a settlement agreement with Burgess and the ACLU PA. The single nay vote came from the board’s only Republican member.

In its press release announcing the settlement, ACLU PA Executive Director Mike Lee said, “In the Central Bucks School District, voters made clear their preference for a school board that supports all students and inclusive education. Now, a beloved teacher will be able to resume his career and reclaim his reputation.”

The settlement calls for CBSD to pay Burgess $100,000 compensatory and punitive damages, as well as pay $325,000 in legal fees to ACLU PA. It also mandates that any reference to Duane Morris’ investigative report be removed from Burgess’ employment record and from the district’s website, and that it not be distributed to anyone in the future. Finally, Morris gets his job back.

“We are happy to have this dispute behind us and welcome Andrew back to the Central Bucks School District,” said Karen Smith, president of the new Democrat-led board, at the March 12 meeting.

“The support I have received from union members, former students, and members of the community has been instrumental and often overwhelming,” Burgess said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this can be an opportunity for Central Bucks to develop a greater institutional courage, to treat all staff members with respect, and to create safe school environments for all students. I stand in solidarity with everyone fighting back against this national campaign to harm trans children and intimidate educators.”

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