The Central Bucks teacher at the center of months of political turmoil actively stifled the reporting of bullying incidents of LGBT students to district administration, thereby putting at least two students at risk while simultaneously allowing the political animosity in the district to foment, a report and presentation on Thursday claimed.
The upshot, according to the report, was that many of the recent accusations of LGBT intolerance allegedly promoted and fostered by the Central Bucks School District Board were more or less nurtured by him because of his opposition to the Republican majority elected in 2021.
That was one of just several key findings presented Thursday night by Michael Rinaldi, a lawyer with the firm Duane Morris LLP, hired by the district to investigate allegations that the district had cultivated an environment hostile to LGBT students.
Most of the discussion focused on a May incident in which the district suspended Lenape Middle School teacher Andrew Burgess for allegedly violating school policy. Burgess has repeatedly claimed the move was retaliation for his support for LGBT students, which, if true, would be its own evidence of an environment hostile to LGBT persons.
In October, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. Of the 71 pages in that complaint, 27 pages are completely redacted in versions released to the public. Then, earlier this month, Burgess filed suit against the district with ACLU lawyers representing him.
But the presentation by Rinaldi — backed by 45 interviews of school officials and the review of more than 120,000 documents — appeared to show that Burgess collected bullying allegations from one particular student known only as “Student 1.” Burgess then created a “dossier” of the harassment, but never forwarded them to his supervisors or district administrators.
Rinaldi also presented evidence he believes completely refutes an ongoing narrative that the district was cruelly indifferent to the plight of LGBT students.
“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, particularly if Mr. Burgess, aided by the press, could convince the public that the school district’s new policies were the actual cause of such bullying and harassment,” Rinaldi said near the beginning of the presentation.
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Rinaldi began by using documents collected from Burgess’s school computer to establish that by March 3, 2022, he had made a spreadsheet of many of the various bullying allegations made by Student 1.
Roughly one week later, Lenape Principal Geanine Saullo sent an email to several teachers and administrators, saying, “I know earlier in the year [Student 1] was experiencing some negative attention from peers. I was wondering if you have seen anything lately or if things have improved.”
Burgess responded, saying that things had not improved for Student 1, but he had recommendations of the fellow classmates Student 1 might like to be in class with for the following school year for Student 1’s social comfort. Burgess made no mention of the detailed log he was keeping.
Later, when asked by the investigators of Duane Morris if he ever reported “any of the information that [Student 1] gave you to anyone else at Central Bucks School District,” Burgess replied, “No, I did not.”
Rinaldi said the interview with Burgess on Jan. 12, 2023 was under oath, and was transcribed.
Rinaldi also provided messages which showed Burgess was adept at filing “Behavior Data Reports” or BDRs, which are essentially disciplinary write-ups of bad behavior by students.
Messages in 2021 through 2022 showed Burgess bragging to fellow teachers, “Pick me up in fantasy BDR ball I am going for a new [personal record] today,” and “BDR city!! Let em rain[.]”
Despite that expertise in student discipline, the interview transcript shows Burgess told the mother of Student 1 that the Central Bucks school had no procedures in place to report the bullying.
To back this assertion, Rinaldi produced notes made by Principal Saullo, who used caller-ID to track down Student 1’s mother because the mother had called earlier.
“I reached out to [the mother] to see if I could help her with something since she was calling central office and the school psych,” Saullo wrote on March 16, roughly two weeks after Burgess allegedly began compiling his dossier. “She shared with me that she was given a civil rights complaint form from one of the Lenape teachers. She stated that she was told by the teacher that the district does not have things in place to address her concerns.”
Still, Burgess appears to have failed to file a BDR.
Investigators asked Burgess, “So it stands to reason that those are [bad behaviors] that you would have to report to the administration, correct?”
“Yes,” he answered.
Other emails and electronic messages showed Burgess heaping praise on the Central Bucks school’s vice principal for her professional and timely conduct in investigating and handling of BDRs.
“His answer, right now, telling a fourteen-year-old and his mother that you have concerns that the district won’t do anything about all of those things on that dossier is tantamount to telling them not to report it to the administration,” Rinaldi surmised.
Although Burgess apparently never filed any BDRs against Student 1’s harassers, documents did show he continued to file them against other students for more minor behavior, such as having a laptop open at an inappropriate time of class, or for another student who handed out prohibited energy drinks to school friends.
At one point in Burgess’s interview with investigators, he appeared unable to point with specificity to any school in the district with an environment hostile to LGBT students, even at his own school.
In an effort to show that the administration was actually proactive in some of its work for LGBT students, Rinaldi showed an email from Saullo working to help Student 1.
“[Student 1] needs some help in navigating how to report things when they happen and to who… I think he may have been confiding in a teacher… and nothing makes it [sic] way here,” she wrote in an email on March 16, 2022.
Rinaldi also produced an email showing Central Bucks Board Member Karen Smith reaching out to the U.S. Department of Education asking that the district be investigated, but that she never informed all members of the board about that request. She later voted against hiring Duane Morris to conduct its own investigation, the one that resulted in Thursday’s presentation.
About midway through the presentation, Smith interrupted and appeared clearly upset, calling the report biased, and saying that students’ identities would be uncovered because of the report.
The ACLU dismissed the report as “worthless” and “dishonest.”
“A credible investigation would not have hired people who have an obvious bias against the trans and non-binary students who lodged the complaint,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Credible interviewers would not have told witnesses that the district’s recent homophobic policies were legal and reasonable, or they would have argued over that point with the witnesses. A real investigation would not have ignored the staff who are most likely familiar with the problems, like LGBTQ+-student-group advisors, most of whom were never questioned. Honest interviewers would not have tried to undermine most of what the witnesses told them, especially when it didn’t fit their preconceived narrative.
“Since the just-concluded investigation did all of those things, its conclusions are worthless,” Walczak said.
Efforts to obtain comment from Smith were either not returned or were not successful. A spokesperson from the ACLU of Pennsylvania said Burgess “is not available for comment at this time,” and that the ACLU’s statement would suffice for comment for now.
Some persons who spoke during public comment were deeply critical that the investigation was led by former U.S. attorney and Republican candidate for governor, Bill McSwain, who quarterbacked the effort for Duane Morris. McSwain once faced backlash for calling a student Gender-Sexuality Alliance “leftist political indoctrination.”
Rinaldi also touched on reports of an attempted suicide by a transgender former student.
Although much of the media reporting in the last months has implied that any LGBT hostility is a direct result of the current board, that attempted suicide happened in 2019, at least two years before the current board majority of Republicans was elected.
I did not expect my administrators to be pleased with the decision that I made, but I felt like it was my responsibility as an educator.
Rinaldi said he and his teammates chased that lead down and discovered it had been misrepresented, based on interviews with staff.
“Before this attempted suicide, the staff did not know that the student was transgender and represented there was no bullying on that basis,” Rinaldi said. “And the student did have mental health issues and was placed in placements because of that. In other words, the school district did everything right in this circumstance. It’s an unfortunate instance that there are kids who have real mental health issues,” he said.
Some media reports have failed completely to inform readers that the suicide happened before the current majority took power, thereby leaving open to the reader’s mind that the suicide may have been a recent development attributable to the current circumstances.
Broad + Liberty has also reported on the media environment around these controversies, delving into numerous stories in which the Bucks County Courier Times and WHYY appeared not to have reached out to the board for comment, although those reporters and editors denied the allegations.
Board members Dr. Mariam Mahmud, Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo, and Smith voted against publicly releasing the full report , saying they had little time to review it, and were also critical that the special meeting to discuss the report was being held on a Muslim holiday. Board Member Leigh Vlasblom countered by saying that the board was not given the chance to review the ACLU’s allegations before their complaint with the U.S. Department of Education was lodged.
Others have been critical of the report before its release because of news reports estimating the cost to be close to $1 million.
The controversies over the Central Bucks board and its policies have reached such a fever in the last six months that the Inquirer, based only on the highly redacted ACLU report, called for the current board majority to be “replaced immediately.” When contacted by Broad + Liberty about that phrase, editors for the Inquirer declined to say by what method those board members should be replaced.
Burgess was featured in a New Year’s Day story by the New York Times on school harassment issues.
“I did not expect my [Central Bucks] administrators to be pleased with the decision that I made, but I felt like it was my responsibility as an educator,” Burgess was quoted as saying by the paper. “But I was concerned that I would be complicit if I became aware of this information and allowed it to sit.”
Update: This story was updated to add that a spokesperson from the ACLU acknowledged Broad + Liberty‘s efforts to obtain comment from Burgess, but that he was not available for comment at that time.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports