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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.

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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