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.”