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Half of Legal Team Drops Out for Central Bucks Teacher Suing the District

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty

Three of the six attorneys representing the teacher at the center of a year-long controversy and who is now suing the Central Bucks School District withdrew on Thursday as his counsel in the lawsuit, according to court documents.

The timing is notable because the move came just two business days before Andrew Burgess and his remaining attorneys, mostly from the American Civil Liberties Union, filed an amended complaint with the court which makes new allegations against the district. By removing themselves when they did, the three attorneys did not sign on to and become a party to the newer allegations, although there is no evidence establishing that was their motivation.

Burgess is the suspended teacher who has been the face of the controversy in Bucks County over accusations mostly from the left that the district has created a hostile environment for LGBT students, while the right has argued Burgess manufactured the controversy to set the district up as a patsy for those attacks.

With the help of attorneys from the ACLU, Burgess launched his original lawsuit on April 11, alleging that the district had fired him in retaliation for his support of LGBT students, as well as his criticisms that the district was allegedly falling short in its protection of those students.

On Aug. 10, Eli Segal, John Stapleton, and Kali J. Schellenberg, of the law firm LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC, all removed themselves as Burgess’ counsel. The amended complaint was filed Monday.

The attorneys did not respond to a request for comment as to what motivated their exit, or as to whether they took the case on a contingency basis, meaning that they would only be paid if Burgess were to win.

The firm’s website makes it clear that it does take some cases on a contingency basis, which not all law firms do.

The departing legal team did express an enthusiasm for Burgess’ lawsuit just months ago, however.

“Andrew Burgess stood up for the LGBTQ+ students of the school district,” Eli Segal was quoted as saying by, shortly after the original suit was filed. “And now we are proud to stand up for him.”

With Segal, Stapleton, and Schellenberg removed, Burgess is left with two attorneys from the ACLU, and a faculty member from the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey School of Law.

The two attorneys for the ACLU of Pennsylvania likewise did not return a request for comment on the developments.

In May 2022, some students at Lenape Middle School walked out in support of Burgess after the district suspended him. Burgess and the students claimed his suspension was retaliation for his support of the LGBT community in the district, and especially because he helped guide one transgender student’s mother to file a federal complaint of sexual discrimination.

The district has since responded that it fired Burgess because it believed he violated policy by hiding some student allegations of bullying from administrators.

The CBSD board, which took on a Republican majority after the 2020 elections, authorized an independent investigation by the local law firm Duane Morris in November of 2021.

The final report of the investigation, delivered on April 20 — nine days after Burgess filed suit — claimed that Burgess had actually withheld allegations of bullying by the main student in question so as to manufacture a pretext for the federal complaint. The federal complaint, in turn, would publicly harm the new board, and add fuel to the fire.

The amended complaint largely featured new allegations that the Duane Morris investigation and report was itself a form of district retaliation against Burgess, saying the report to the board “excoriated and made false allegations” against the teacher.

One example of a “false allegation” cited in the amended complaint is that the Duane Morris report claimed Burgess violated district policy regarding reporting of bad student behavior.

“The [Duane Morris] Report concluded that, prior to CBSD suspending Burgess, he violated the provision of CBSD Board Policy 104 that states: ‘[a] school employee who suspects or is notified that a student has been subject to conduct that constitutes a violation of this policy shall immediately report the incident to the building principal,’” the amended complaint states. “This language requiring reporting to the building principal was added to CBSD Board Policy 104 in June 2022, one month after CBSD suspended Burgess. This version of Board Policy 104, therefore, could not have justified CBSD suspending Burgess on May 6, 2022.”

The Duane Morris report, however, says on page 56 that the policy in question previously existed as Board Policy 103, and “was merged into Board Policy 104…as part of a revision and renumbering of certain Board Policies in 2022.”

Attorney Eli Segal was signed on to Burgess’ original April 11 filing, while John Stapleton entered his appearance on behalf of Burgess on the same day. Only Kali Schellenberg entered her appearance after the Duane Morris report. Her entry landed on April 28, roughly one week after Mike Rinaldi, the attorney for Duane Morris, presented the full investigative report to CBSD.

Along with the Burgess controversy, the district has also been dealing with contentious social debates.

The district’s policy to ban political displays from classrooms has been a consistent point of debate, especially in the media. Although the policy is sometimes portrayed in the media as a policy that bans Pride flags, it actually bans all forms of political advocacy, which would include Trump flags, Thin Blue Line flags, the Confederate battle flag, and other such displays, unless those materials are relevant to the day’s teaching curriculum.

The district has also established a policy that students should be called by the names given by their parents. If a student wishes to be called by a different name or have different pronouns, the district notifies the parent.

And the district has also reviewed some library books which contain sexually explicit images. Two books have been removed. One of those books, Gender Queer, has been a flashpoint nationwide. The book is a cartoon memoir that documents the author’s own journey with sexual identity, and has an explicit drawing of one person giving oral sex to a male.

Critics of the district have taken these three policies together to allege that the board is trying to foster a climate hostile to LGBT students.

The conservative board majority has denied this allegation, most notably in a co-authored opinion piece in the Inquirer that focused mainly on the prohibition of political symbols.

“Most importantly, students learn best when they learn how to think, not what to think,” the board majority wrote. “That sort of critical thinking will equip them for a successful future. Accordingly, the classroom should be a place of education, not indoctrination. And that can occur only when teachers check their politics at the door when instructing students by not advocating their own personal views on partisan, political, or social policy issues.

LeVan Stapleton Segal Cochran LLC describes itself as “a strategic, authentic, efficient, and innovative litigation boutique.” The law firm also espouses a commitment to the community through a My100 initiative. “Commitment to the community is a core principle of LSSC. Our attorneys have a long history of significant and far-reaching pro bono achievements and contributions. As part of the My100 initiative, every LSSC attorney will devote at least 100 hours to pro bono and non-profit board service matters each year. No exceptions.”

The three attorneys who previously represented Burgess cited collaboration with the ACLU as part of their pro bono work, although it’s not clear if that is a reference to the Burgess case. Segal focuses on freedom of expression and government transparency, Stapleton is interested in first amendment rights, and Schellenberg has a focus on civil rights.

Report: Attacks on Central Bucks School Board ‘Unfounded’ Partisan Campaign

Claims that the Central Bucks School Board has engaged in discrimination against LGBTQ+ students are unfounded and based on false claims made by partisan activists, a new report released Thursday says.

The district has been embroiled in controversy since the ACLU filed a complaint against it with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in November.

The investigation by the Duane Morris law firm is based on a review of 23,000 pages of documents examining complaints from the ACLU and the DOE. According to Duane Morris attorney Michael Rinaldi, the firm interviewed 45 people, including principals, staff, and community members.

“The ACLU complaint has hung over this district for months now,” school board President Dana Hunter said at Thursday’s meeting. “And this board took those allegations very seriously, which is why we engaged Duane Morris to do an independent investigation.”

Among its findings, the attorneys recommended that middle school teacher Andrew Burgess be suspended without pay. Burgess allegedly told vulnerable LGBTQ+ students who sought his help to refrain from telling the principal or guidance counselors about bullying issues. Instead, Burgess allegedly created a dossier to send to DOE.

He reportedly discouraged a parent from talking to the principal, saying the principal would not act.

Burgess planned to use those students’ problems to chip away at the Republican majority school board through a planned media campaign, Rinaldi said.

Paul Martino, a parent and conservative donor whose Back to School PAC helped flip the board in 2021, called the board’s criticisms “a coordinated effort that was launched the day they lost the campaign.”

“What this report shows clearly is that the leftists in Bucks County were so mad that they lost that they were going to lie and manufacture stories so that they could get back into power in two years.

“We have all suffered because of the strategy they launched over their kitchen tables the day they lost that election in November (2021). They’re bad actors. This report makes it clear,” said Martino.

The lawyers interviewed Burgess, the middle school teacher, under oath. Rinaldi said the firm created a timeline from his emails and interviews showing Burgess’ actions.

Several of Burgess’s emails to other teachers praised Principal Geanine Saullo’s quick actions in bullying cases, belying what he told the LGBTQ+ students and the parent.

Burgess himself did not respond when asked to comment on Friday. Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, answered in his stead, calling the investigation “worthless.”

“A credible investigation would not have hired people who have an obvious bias against the trans and non-binary students who complained,” Walczak said.

“Credible interviewers would not have told witnesses that the district’s recent homophobic policies were legal and reasonable, or they would not have argued over that point with the witnesses.”

Rinaldi, in the report, also revealed that Democrat School Board Member Karen Smith had written an email to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona complaining about the district and asking for help after the Republican majority passed policies that she disagreed with. The review found that Smith never told the board or administration that she had complained to DOE.

During the meeting, Smith herself complained she had not had time to read the 151-page report the law firm had produced and that even though students’ names were redacted, the facts reported could identify them.

Rinaldi also addressed claims the district was engaged in so-called “book banning,” an accusation he said was not supported by the facts.

“No book has been removed, and any removal decision will be made by professionals based on neutral, educational criteria,” Rinaldi said. “Books don’t spontaneously appear on the shelves.”

Reacting to the report, vice president Leigh Vlasblom said: “I have a board member who lied to the federal government and, in doing so, has cost this district $1 million. I would have paid $10 million to protect my children and protect my staff.

“If you come at my teachers, or you come at my administrators, or you come at my children, you’d better bet there is no price tag too big to protect them,” added Vlasblom. “So, I’m angry.”

Hunter told radio host and DVJournal columnist Dom Giordano Friday that the findings in the report are supported by “a lot of documents.”

“Everybody wonders why did the district go to these lengths?” Hunter said. “We had to go to these lengths. I believed, and I still believe, and we got the proof last night that the administrators and staff in this district care deeply for every child.”

Once Smith’s allegations went to the DOE, Hunter argued, “We had an obligation to look into those allegations and make sure our children were being properly cared for, and make sure the administrators and our staff are defended properly.”

After the Thursday meeting, parent Jamie Walker said, “Honestly, nothing that Karen Smith does shocks me. She worked very hard to keep kids out of school during COVID. She sent a doctor’s email full of incorrect information and lies about (Bucks County Health Director) Dr. (David) Damsker to our previous board and administration. She continually voted against kids being normal in school.”

Walker added, “It’s really scary that a teacher (who works at my kids’ school) would hide bullying from the administration to seek fame and hurt a school board.”

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SHANNON: Truth Can Lead the Way to Heal Our Divided District 

Malcolm X famously said, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the guilty innocent and the guilty  innocent.”

The public should be wary of this power as it is not only enshrined in our Constitution but in stable nations the world over, that innocence should be assumed until guilt is proven and proof requires facts. Factual reporting and journalistic standards are desperately needed from members of the media, some of whom have spent more than a year flaming the fires of division and discontent in the Central Bucks School District community and beyond, with allegations and innuendo that are yet unsettled.

It’s almost a year since the story broke regarding the suspension of teacher Andrew Burgess. and the subsequent grandstanding that resulted when the ACLU filed a complaint alleging a “toxic educational environment for LGBQ&T students.” That allegation is truly a charge against the entire district: Teachers, students, administration, and parents. It’s an accusation against the reputation of a stellar school district and,d ultimately, an indictment on the entire community of people who have built their lives and raised their families here and fostered deep bonds with their neighbors. Many of us chose to live in this special community because it offers so much opportunity and an incomparable quality of life. It is a truly wonderful place to live and put down roots.

The allegations themselves are an open wound for our district that must be healed and therefore warrant a thorough investigation and accurate reporting of the facts. All of us as stakeholders should be eager for and demand factual information so that our district can understand what brought us to what feels like a war within our community.

In the year since the Burgess story broke, one can argue that the power described in MalcolmX’sX quote has been demonstrated by multiple media outlets who failed their duty of journalistic integrity to report on the story in a non-biased manner.

Reporters from the Bucks County Courier Times, the Bucks County Herald, WHYY, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, just to name a few, created a narrative and amplified it without conducting a thorough investigation, exposing their bias and fanning the flames of division without regard for the collateral damage they unleashed on our school district and the greater community. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board unmasked its prejudice with a December headline, “What is going on at the Central Bucks School District is an appalling disregard for LGBTQ students.” How can such a headline presuming guilt be written, by an editorial board of a once esteemed and venerable newspaper, without verified facts regarding a complaint that incriminates an entire cadre of teachers, administrators, students, and families?

Front page news last week informed us Mr. Burgess is now suing the district. It’s wise that this reporter used the word ‘allege’ in one form or other 17 times, as the matter of this new lawsuit is exactly that, another allegation. And yet she tells us that this suit “provides the first details” surrounding these events. Thank you, Ms. Ciavaglia, for telling the public there have been no details, despite the press crowing about this matter for a year.

Democracy is in peril, and the very tenets of our Constitution are in peril when reporters exist to only extol a narrative without honesty and journalistic integrity.

Once the ACLU filed a complaint, entirely redacted, without any complaints reported to our staff and administration, CBSD had no choice but to hire a legal firm to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations. It is the administration’s duty to protect all of our students, as well as the future and the reputation of our district, its teachers, and students, and to not conduct an investigation would constitute a dereliction of duty.

A great deal of ink and breath, combined with the innumerable keystrokes expended by fierce, often anonymous activists and keyboard warriors, has been spent regarding the cost of the investigation that will be passed on to the taxpayers. We are due an exhaustive and fair reporting of the expenses incurred as a result of this ACLU complaint.

The Central Bucks School District announced it will receive the report from the legal firm regarding the ACLU complaint at a special meeting on Thursday, April 20, and the board will consider dissemination of the report. For the sake of our fractured community, it is crucial the manner and operation of the bullying charges finally be divulged. If we live in a district where bullying is commonplace, we all should want to know specifics.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) subscribes to a Code of Ethics regarding journalistic standards and professional conduct. According to its preamble, “Members of the SPJ believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair, and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.” Their four principles are to: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; and Be Accountable and Transparent.”

It is right and just that the report be released to the taxpayers that paid for it, and the journalists covering the results of this legal investigation write about the findings in a fair and unbiased manner. For the sake of the public’s trust in them, they must do so as vigorously as they have written about allegations this past year. To do anything else would be to fan the flames of divisiveness and anger that have deeply broken our community.

Many people tell me the media tell a story, but not always the whole story. Over the past year, it feels as though our stellar school district has been targeted by the media intent to paint a picture so as to destroy what so many of us hold so dear.

For the sake of our democracy, our Constitution, and our entire populace, we should all demand the truth. Anything less will prove Malcolm X’s words true, eroding the presumption of innocence and baring the festering wound that will continue to devastate all of us.

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Central Bucks Approves Controversial ‘Politics in Classroom’ Policy

At a contentious meeting Tuesday evening, the Central Bucks School Board voted 6-3 to pass a policy requiring teachers not to discuss various personal political views in classrooms.

“Neutrality and balance in classroom instruction are desired in order to create an optimal learning environment and atmosphere of inclusiveness, where all students are welcome. Because views and beliefs about partisan, political, or social policy matters are often deeply personal, employees should not, during assigned work hours, advocate to students concerning their views or beliefs on these matters,” Policy 321 states.

During nearly two hours of public comment, many teachers, students and residents objected to the policy that would ban gay pride flags, MAGA hats, or other items deemed partisan from classrooms. Others strongly supported the policy and thanked the majority of board members who favored it.

“The conversation we had at the policy meeting was hot. I sincerely hope my fellow board members listen with an open heart…this policy also includes language that I’ve said out loud. We should be teaching how to think, not what to think,” said Board Member Tabitha Dell Angelo.

Board Member Karen Smith said she had heard from many community members who opposed the policy and very few who approved.

“The policy is the very opposite of education,” she said. It is an “embarrassing inventory of restrictions on personal freedoms.”

Vice President Leigh Vlasblom disagreed. “It doesn’t stifle the amazing work that our teachers do. We have other policies that encourage our teachers to have these conversations that support students.

“It just says ‘do it’ as a mindset to be welcome to all opinions,” Vlasblom said, “This policy does not inhibit that. It does not address student speech.”

Board Member Debra Cannon responded to Smith’s claims.

“Pain is pain. Mrs. Smith, I find it ironic for someone who works at an IU supports a Twitter account that lampoons me…Why wouldn’t you champion the success of all students? I’d rather cultivate an environment in our district that is fruitful…Are you telling the students the truth?”

“Do you want students to keep secrets from their first teachers, their parents?” she asked. “We’ve always asked for age appropriateness.”

Earlier in the day, Board President Dana Hunter explained to the Delaware Valley Journal about why she believed policy 321 needed to be passed.

“It provides an atmosphere of inclusiveness,” said Hunter about the policy, noting that students come from diverse backgrounds and should feel “comfortable to express themselves.”

Asked whether the opposition to the policy was political because it is an election year for some school board members, she said, “I can’t speculate.”

“Everything has become very divisive,” she said.

The policy tells teachers to “maintain a neutral environment and not use the classroom to indoctrinate the students.” Some 99 percent of the teachers do not have a problem with the policy, she said. They “do a wonderful job.”

In the past, some teachers put gay rights flags and other political propaganda in their classrooms, she added. That would no longer be permitted in under the new policy.

However, she said teachers can talk about politics in the context of the curriculum.

The district “encourages teachers to teach history and do so in a balanced manner,” she said. They should “focus on the curriculum in a balanced manner and not advocate.”

Some critics say the policy will give parents a cudgel to use against teachers.

“This is completely false,” said Hunt. If someone comes to her and complains about a teacher, she tells them to go to the teacher and talk to them because there is probably a misunderstanding. If that does not work, they should go to the principal, not the school board.

“All we (the board members) do is set expectations,” said Hunter. “It is up to the district to carry out this policy.”

As for the 72-page ACLU complaint filed with the federal Department of Education that is “largely redacted,” the “district has no knowledge” about much of it. But it does mention the policy and a library book policy the district previously adopted.

The ACLU claims the policy discriminates against LGBTQ students.

“The district hired the law firm, Duane Morris,” to study the complaint and write a report. She hopes the report will be issued soon. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, who ran for governor, is handling the investigation.

Several speakers complained about the district’s spending on legal fees and a public relations firm. However, another resident pointed out that insurance paid most of the legal tab.


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