The enthusiasm of gender-ideology activists for their cause cannot be doubted, but their regard for the truth can. That’s the lesson to be drawn from a Philadelphia-area law firm’s investigation into accusations that the Central Bucks School District’s conservative school board fosters unchecked harassment of transgender students.
The investigation by Duane Morris LLP, which consisted of 45 interviews and more than 120,000 documents, focused heavily on Anthony Burgess, a former Lenape Middle School teacher suspended in May 2022. Burgess, a confidante of students experiencing gender dysphoria, and his defenders claimed that the conservatives running the school district punished him merely for advising a student to file a civil rights complaint over rampant bullying. Those claims prompted a national controversy, as media held up the district as an example of conservative aggression against trans rights. As Duane Morris’s report makes clear, however, the narrative was built on fabrications.
Michael Rinaldi, a lawyer with the firm, explained in a presentation at a packed April school board meeting last month that Burgess had used his position to hide bullying allegations, thus manufacturing the appearance of apathy by administrators. “The evidence and circumstances suggest that Mr. Burgess believed that if he brought to light supposed widespread unaddressed bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students and convinced a federal agency to investigate such matters, the school board would cave to the inevitable criticism and bad press,” Rinaldi said.
Documents obtained from Burgess’s school computer show that he created a dossier detailing incidents of harassment that children brought to him, many of which he kept under wraps despite administrators’ attempts to help. For example, a week after the dossier was completed, on March 10, 2022, Lenape principal Geanine Saullo emailed several teachers and staff, including Burgess, about one student in the dossier, referred to in the report as “Student 1.”
“Please encourage Student 1 to bring things to our attention,” Saullo said. “I would hate to see suffering in silence.”
But Burgess, who is now suing the district on claims that it illegally retaliated against him, worked to ensure that silence prevailed. He later admitted to investigators in an interview that he not only withheld information but also discouraged the student and the student’s mother from going to school leaders, instead giving the student a civil rights complaint form. “But you told them that you had concerns and the District wouldn’t do anything about it, right?” an investigator asked Burgess in an interview. “I did,” Burgess responded.
According to district policy, teachers must report any bullying incidents to administrators. On these grounds, Burgess was suspended, pending further investigation. That subsequent investigation highlighted instances of administrators effectively addressing misconduct by a small group of students toward transgender peers, as well as examples of Burgess commending administrators for their responsiveness. “The investigation demonstrated what we know to be true, which is that while our school environments are not immune to problems, they are filled with caring, compassionate adults who stand ready to intervene and address them,” Abram Lucabaugh, the district superintendent, told me.
Before the investigation was completed, however, the district wasn’t commenting on Burgess’s suspension. All anyone knew was the tale of retaliation against Burgess reported in local and national media. A week-long “walk-out” protest followed at Lenape, which culminated on May 12, 2022, when several adults drove over barricades near the school cafeteria, and enticed students to join their protest by offering pizza. The police were called, and when Principal Saullo, emotional after a week of chaos at her school, went outside, she argued with students over returning to class. Four students refused and sat on the curb, according to the investigation.
The ACLU, deciding to worry about getting the facts right later, accused Saullo of barring students from re-entering the building because of their sexuality. Figures like Wired magazine writer Steve Silberman accused Saullo of “terrorizing kids who stood up for a teacher.” Keith Olbermann called for Saullo to be fired. The media circus influenced students. A high school student emailed Saullo, saying, “high schoolers are now organizing to come show support to the children affected by your bigoted legislation. . . . Keep calling the cops on us and we will continue to show up. ACLU will cover our story.”
Aside from his suspension, Burgess’s scheme was working better than he likely imagined. And progressives’ anger would soon spread beyond the initial story, growing into a remarkable frenzy of untruths as the school board persisted in enacting policies anathema to left-wing sexual orthodoxy.
Earlier in 2022, Dana Hunter, Central Bucks School Board president, said that parents had begun complaining that their children were finding inappropriately sexual, even “pornographic,” books in school libraries. In response, and a mere two months after the Burgess affair, the board enacted a policy establishing age-appropriate standards for sexual content available to children.
Media accusations against the board shifted immediately from fostering harassment of students into conspiracy theories. Local media suggested that the board was a covert cell of the Three Percenters militia group. The law firm hired by the district to help craft its libraries policy, the Independence Law Center, was accused of being a “Christian nationalist” organization. Some parents charged the board with removing “stories of marginalized people” from libraries. Media like USA Today, NPR, and the Huffington Post decried “book banning.”
Hunter finds the accusations depressingly amusing. “I don’t even know what the Three Percenters is,” she said during a phone interview. “I’m not part of any such group and I can assure you none of the other board members are.”
Jeremy Samek, senior counsel at Independence Law Center, also dismissed the accusation that his firm was aligned with Christian nationalism: “Whatever the label is intended to convey, it sounds like ad hominem.”
Both Hunter and Samek pointed out that the school board’s policy does not allow for anything like censorship, and that no books have been removed so far. “If a person removes a book because they don’t like the viewpoint, that could be illegal,” said Samek. “But sexually explicit content is not a viewpoint at all.” Instead, the policy merely allows for books depicting explicit “sex acts” to be challenged, and several books have. School librarians and staff must then review each book and determine if it should be replaced with another book of equal merit in the same genre.
With the Burgess and book-ban incidents still brewing, the board then took action to prevent faculty and staff from facilitating gender transitions without informing parents; the new policy directed staff to use students’ given names and pronouns unless a parent had approved otherwise.
The reaction to this policy was somehow even more hyperbolic than the responses to the previous two incidents. Some staff refused to comply because they believed that “deadnaming” students could cause them to commit suicide (a claim as irresponsible as it is baseless). The ACLU, following Burgess’s lead, began filing civil rights complaints over what it called “outright hostility”’ toward trans students.
None of these incidents, however, compares with what happened this past January, when the board enacted Policy 321. The policy restricts activism by employees on campuses, including displaying “any flag, banner, poster, sign, sticker, pin, button, insignia, paraphernalia, photograph, or other similar material that advocates concerning any partisan, political, or social policy issue.” Thus, the pride flags that were displayed in many classrooms were disallowed, except for instructional purposes.
Death threats, teacher walkouts, and yet another negative media frenzy followed. Some alumni signed a letter saying that the policies go “against the very spirit of what a meaningful education can and should be.” A high school librarian plastered a quote on the library doors that said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Hunter says that the librarian did so without explaining that the quote was from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel or how it related to student academics, prompting the principal to ask him either to add that context or remove the posters, which violated the new policy. The librarian chose to remove the posters, telling local media, “It broke my heart.” A public relations firm that the district had hired resigned after community members “engaged in targeted harassment of several clients and staff . . . threatening their association with our district in ways that are, at best caustic, and at worst, malicious and false,” the district said.
Superintendent Lucabaugh issued a letter to the community lamenting that the district had become “ground zero” for America’s culture war and calling for an end to the chaos. At a March board meeting, Hunter played a voicemail of one threatening call made to her. “It’s unfortunate you weren’t aborted in the first place,” the caller said, before calling her a sex-based slur. The district has forwarded additional threats to the police.
On New Year’s Day, the New York Times published an article titled “Strife in the Schools: Education Dept. Logs Record Number of Discrimination Complaints.” Burgess, featured in the piece, said that the Central Bucks school board majority exemplifies conservatives who have “zeroed in on transgender rights as a culture war issue.” The article said of the board’s policies: “Such efforts have not only fueled more harassment of students based on their gender identity and sexual orientation, but [have] also had a chilling effect on educators’ willingness to stop it, advocates say.”
The list of deceptions and distortions that it took to justify the Times’s printing those sentences is long. No evidence exists that the board’s policies fueled anything other than unjustified panic by progressives, and Burgess’s own actions prove that the alleged “chilling effect” among staff was phony.
Central Bucks School District’s policies are merely attempts to keep left-wing politics out of children’s classrooms and graphic depictions of sex out of their libraries. Far from targeting anyone’s rights, the only thing that these policies conflict with is gender radicals’ belief that their opinions and the symbols used to communicate them are sacrosanct in public institutions. Most Americans do not share this belief.
Now that the facts are out in public, there is at least some hope that Central Bucks students will be able to learn in a partisanship-free environment. Then again, gender ideology activists have proven adept at the postmodern approach to facts: they ignore them.