ACLU headquarters, Washington D.C. (Shutterstock)
ACLU headquarters, Washington D.C. (Shutterstock)

The Education Department will investigate the state’s fourth largest school district, after allegations of a “toxic educational environment” for LGBTQ+ students from the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The US Department of Education has announced it will investigate the Central Bucks School District, following allegations of discriminatory behavior against LGBTQ+ students.

The investigation was prompted by a federal complaint filed earlier this month by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, after the organization conducted a five-month investigation of the school district.

The ACLU interviewed dozens of students, family members, current and former teachers, as well as other school staff and community members, and said it found a a “toxic educational environment”—particularly for those who are transgender and non-binary—in the state’s fourth largest school district that serves some 18,000 pupils.

“Our complaint alleges a longtime toxic environment for LGBQ&T students in the district’s schools,” said ACLU attorney Rich Ting. “The environment has only become worse since the election of extremists to the school board last November. Before, there was an atmosphere of casual dismissal and victim-blaming of LGBQ&T students who were targets of bullying, harassment and discrimination. Now there is outright hostility.”

Following the announcement of the ACLU’s complaint, the district’s superintendent, Abram Lucabaugh, issued a statement saying “We believe it is paramount that all students and teachers are cared for and respected as members of our learning and teaching community.” 

Lucabaugh declined further comment to the Keystone at the time, and the district has yet to comment on the announcement of the Education Department’s investigation.

In its 71-page complaint, the ACLU said the environment for LGBTQ+ students “has been exacerbated recently by homophobic and transphobic actions and policies taken by the school board and upper-level administraors,” including:

  • Instructing teachers to not use students’ correct pronouns and names
  • Banning pride flags
  • Creating policies designed to remove LGBTQ-themed books and learning resources from libraries and curriculum
  • Disciplining staff who speak out against anti-LGBTQ policies or offer support to students who have been bullied and harrassed
  • Refusing pleas from students, parents, and teachers to provide training to staff about how to support LGBTQ+ students or to enact policies to prevent discrimination

Mindy Freeman, the parent of a transgender Central Bucks high school student, said she was “saddened” that the ACLU had to take such action. 

“I’m sorry it had to come to this point,” Freeman said. “This was a school district I once trusted.”

Freeman cited an environment where “students, teachers, parents, and librarians pleaded” with the school board and the administration not to enact a library policy that empowers school officials to remove books from library shelves. She said many of the titles cited by parents and others as “age inappropriate” include LGBTQ+ characters and themes.

Freeman claimed that despite demonstrations and protests, the district has continued to advance discriminatory policies such as banning books, which she said “hurt the most vulnerable students.”

The ACLU filed the complaint on behalf of seven Central Bucks students, all of whom are minors. While their identities will be protected, the ACLU said “many LGBQ&T students are afraid to eat lunch in the cafeteria, where much of the behavior occurs, or even go to school at all.” 

In its statement, the ACLU described the school board since April 2022 as “hell bent on erasing the visibility of LGBQ&T students from Central Bucks schools, especially trans and gender-non-conforming students.”

From the library policy, to efforts to ban Pride flags and other symbols of support for LGBQ&T students, to directing teachers to “dead-name and misgender students” unless the student’s parents allow it, the ACLU said the school board is violating students’ rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Deadnaming refers to calling a transgender or non-binary person by a name they used before transitioning, such as their birth name.

During a rally earlier this year at the school district’s administrative building, Julie Zaebst, a senior policy advocate for the ACLU Pennsylvania, condemned the library policy, saying, “censorship has no place in schools.” 

“The vagueness of this policy is by design,” Zaebst said. “It’s what allows the superintendent to proclaim, ‘This isn’t a book ban,’ while at the same time, we have terrified teachers removing books with real literary merit from their classroom libraries out of fear.”

Marlene Pray, founder and director of Planned Parenthood Keystone’s Rainbow Room, an award-winning LGBTQ+ youth center and sex education program in Doylestown, said the district’s recent actions are “deeply disturbing and disappointing.”

“Support for LGBTQ+ students is non-negotiable,” Pray said. “We want to make sure that LGBTQ+ youth feel safe and supported. That means using their self-selected pronouns, honoring their chosen gender identities, allowing students to display Pride flags and recognizing that books with LGBTQ+ characters are not wrong—they represent real youth. When youth see themselves, their identities are validated.”

The ACLU said it’s asking the Education Department and Justice Department to order the school district to take a range of measures, including:

  • Using welcoming and inclusive language in school, district, college, and university mission statements, such as a commitment to ensuring a safe and supportive campus that is free from discrimination and harassment for LGBTQ+ students.
  • Ensuring that school policies clearly affirm students’ right to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in all aspects of school, including the nondiscriminatory use of discipline and equal access to school programs and activities.
  • Adopting policies that respect all students’ gender identities—such as the use of the name a student goes by, which may be different from their legal name, and pronouns that reflect a student’s gender identity—and implementing policies to safeguard students’ privacy—such as maintaining the confidentiality of a student’s birth name or sex assigned at birth if the student wishes to keep this information private, unless the disclosure is legally required. 
  • Adopting policies or model plans to guide school staff on how to support students and communicate with families, such as developmentally appropriate protocols to support students in any transition process, and a checklist of issues to discuss with the student or their family.
  • Facilitating opportunities for students to find support with peers, teachers, faculty, and staff, such as student-led organizations, and identifying safe spaces on campus. 
  • Providing professional development opportunities for educators on equitable and supportive treatment of historically underserved students, including LGBTQ+ youth, and taking steps to promote increased diversity among educators.

 “These are children who need support, not more trauma,” said the ACLU. “We also hope that the adults who are responsible for perpetuating such disgusting, toxic and discriminating policies come to their senses and do the right thing.”