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 Patch.com, 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.