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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 17, 2023

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In late October 2022, the Department of Education began an investigation into alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity at a school district in eastern Pennsylvania. While many of the specific allegations in the complaint focused on conventional culture war -- Pride flags in middle school classrooms, pronoun and name policies, what gender's sex-segregated health class a trans person should go to, some complex questions about during-school-hours protests -- a large portion reflected something far less prosaic: over two dozen (largely-redacted) pages of bullying targeting specific students, and a teacher (redacted in the ACLU's public copy of the complaint, but in other reporting revealed as an Andrew Burgess) was suspended and transfered after reporting that bullying.

The school district has, in response, investigated and released its own report:

For his part, Student 1 wrote Mr. Burgess a lengthy e-mail, setting forth multiple alleged bullying incidents, including:

  • having ice thrown at him, being hit, and being subjected to physical threats;
  • having a student yell at him and try to trip him;
  • being “deadnamed” and being told the name he used was not his “real” name;
  • being called a variety of slurs;
  • being repeatedly propositioned for a date, despite turning down theoffers;
  • having food thrown at him in the cafeteria; and
  • being called the “r-word.”

3/3/2022 E-Mail Message from Student 1 to Andrew Burgess [Ex. 41]...

Mr. Burgess then began to organize Student 1’s allegations of bullying and harassment into the dossier, setting forth in a two-page chart the names of the alleged perpetrators, dates and times of the alleged bullying, a description of the alleged events, names of witnesses, and the locations of the events. The remaining two pages of the dossier contain further detail about the alleged events. [Ex. 16.] During his interview as part of this investigation, Mr. Burgess explained that he created the dossier during a meeting with Student 1 and Student 2 during school hours. Burgess Interview at 25–26 [Ex. 11]. According to the dossier’s metadata and contemporaneous e-mail communications, it appears that the dossier was initially created on March 3 and that additional work occurred on it on March 4, when it also appears that Mr. Burgess met with Student 1 and Student 2.

The dossier contains serious and troubling allegations. If true, it shows that Student 1 was subjected to repeated bullying by about a dozen of his fellow Lenape students over the course of months, with some of it continuing on a “weekly” basis or even “3 or 4 times a week.” [Ex. 16.]

During his interview, Mr. Burgess was asked whether he ever reported to the School District the information Student 1 gave him:

Q. And did you ever report any of the information that [Student 1] gave you to anyone else at Central Bucks School District?

A. No, I did not.

Burgess Interview at 26 [Ex. 11].

This was not a one-off:

During her interview, Ms. Gluck, a French teacher at Lenape and moderator of the school’s SAGA club, told us that, around December 2021, she was approached by Stephen Albert, then a former Lenape assistant principal and a vocal activist on LGBTQ issues and frequent attendee at School Board meetings. Mr. Albert asked Ms. Gluck to get information from SAGA club members (i.e., students at Lenape Middle School) about stories of LGBTQ bullying and harassment in the School District that they had heard.

According to Ms. Gluck, in January or February 2022, she made that inquiry of SAGA members at a club meeting and reported the information to Mr. Albert, who, again according to Ms. Gluck, was to send a “compilation” e-mail to a Lenape administrator. During our investigation, we found a February 6, 2022, e-mail message from Mr. Albert to Mrs. Saullo and Mrs. Dowd, which copied various individuals, including Borough of Doylestown officials, Ms. Pray, Superintendent Lucabaugh, and the three Democratic School Board members.

Nor was it specific to just faculty at the school:

Mr. Burgess told us that he sent the dossier—which was replete with allegations of physical and verbal abuse—to Mr. Marshall [ed: an attorney at the Philadelphia Office for Civil Rights], that the two of them talked about the issue over the phone in May 2022, and that he told Mr. Marshall that the information in the dossier had never been reported to the School District. Id. at 197–98.11 Further, in his April 25 e-mail to Mr. Burgess, Mr. Marshall refers to the “the student and family involved in the complaint,” indicating that he appreciated that a child’s welfare was at issue. [Ex. 12]. Yet, with this knowledge, Mr. Marshall failed to notify the School District of the allegations in the dossier and OCR complaint, even though he knew the information had been concealed from the District.

During our investigation, we wrote to OCR about Mr. Marshall’s conduct in this case, requesting an opportunity to interview him about what happened, and asking OCR to cooperate with this independent investigation. On February 8, 2023, Beth Gellman-Beer, the Director of OCR’s Philadelphia Office, wrote us, declining to make Mr. Marshall available for an interview.

To be absolutely clear, this is not a neutral analysis by an disinterested third party: the report is written by Duane Morris LLP at the request of the School Board, which does not require mind-reading to find somewhere other than the bleeding edge of trans activism or jumping to support OCR investigation of their policies. It is absolutely possible that Duane Morris is spinning this as hard as they can, or even playing as fast and loose with the facts as it is alleging the teachers in question did. (though the recommendation that Burgess be suspended without pay is at least raising the stakes, if doing so.)

But they do have some pretty nasty receipts.

It's even possible (indeed, I'd guess likely) that the school administration would not have necessarily acted in accordance with Andrew Burgess's preferred punishment schedules, if perhaps more on the matter of incorrect pronoun use or the awkward 'romantic' (probably not; the report seems to think they were genuine if stalkerish, but that it came through a third party feels more like what's often used as the windup for later mockery) overtures than one the student that allegedly said "I'm going to rape you". I wouldn't be surprised to find someone here immediately start debating whether each particular thing counts as meaningful harassment rather than 'mere' teasing, though given that Burgess and the ACLU listed them as serious offenses I don't think it particularly matters at this point. I wouldn't be surprised if the teachers here genuinely believed, in their heart of hearts, that the school board and principle's policy proposals were strong evidence that they Don't Care About Trans People rather than just Don't Care About Pronouns, or perhaps that they were the earthly incarnations of Satan awaiting the opportunity to break children.

((Hell, it's possible even the most friendly administrators might still ignore a case, without the political loading: joint overdiagnosis and under-diagnosis is more palatable a term than anarchotyranny, but neither is unimaginable or even that unfamiliar. The report details a Buck County Investigation against students who wore t-shirts sloganed with and said "Let's Go Brandon" at Sexuality and Gender Alliance students as an example. And there are genuine policy disagreements over when and what extent requires intervention.))

According to the school district's claims and investigations, which seem to fully match the unredacted portion of the ACLU's complaint, they never had the opportunity to fail that test. And that's relevant less because I care for the opportunities available to a school's upper management, since no small number of the upper caste in public education make it seem like they thought Brazil was a how-to guide, but more because it means that a student (actually, multiple students) were getting left for the bus to run over them, by people that they thought were specifically looking out for them.

I've written before about cases where people elevate Activism above actual things happening on the ground, and while this isn't quite as literal as burning the very people you're claiming to protect on a pyre, it's got my hackles up to a pretty similar degree. Barring some pretty serious revelations from the ACLU or Burgess -- which is possible!... if not likely, given this statement --this does not look like how a teacher would or should act if trying to use every tool available to prevent harassment of vulnerable students. Even had the Department of Education acted on the initial complaint, rather than closed it, Student 1 would have finished a full school year and experienced a large part of a second one before any intervention could have occurred.

This looks more like people who wanted to provide a gift-wrapped case against the school district's new board, which could wrap the controversial or policy questions in with the trivial ones. I can see the utilitarian arguments, for the needs of the many, so on. They just look very bad when, at the end of the day, a trusted adult specifically acting as an advocate for the students is sitting on that list.

I am of the belief that bullying is net positive and our obsession with bullying is another manifestation of over charged empathy.

That doesn’t mean all bully is net positive (some goes too far). But a little bullying is positive.

"The same boiling that hardens the egg softens the potato"

I've found people's opinions on things like bullying or violence tend to just be them projecting their own egg-ness or potato-ness onto others. Yeah, some people will grow character because they got picked on, pull themselves together, become more socially adept etc, but others will just break, curl up into a ball in their own isolated corner, and suffer for it for a long time.

Now you can just say "they should be better," but I'm not sure that's possible. Most things are genetic, and I'd be surprised if fragility isn't heavily genetic as well. There's always trauma adaptation, but that usually makes the person less fragile and also less socialized, so there is a tradeoff there.

The way I see it, the problem is trying to act like everyone is equal. By insisting that this is true, we've left no room for people to exist safely at the bottom of social hierarchies. There's always a sense of "why aren't they better?" that just wouldn't exist in a world where it's understood that yes, some people are at the top, and others are at the bottom, and you each have responsibilities and expectations. Meritocracy has become an excuse for those at the top to ignore the responsibilities they must carry, and an excuse to blame the bottom rung of the ladder for not carrying out responsibilities they shouldn't even have.

Yeah, some people will grow character because they got picked on, pull themselves together, become more socially adept etc, but others will just break, curl up into a ball in their own isolated corner, and suffer for it for a long time.

Devil's advocate: perhaps the point is to sort the sheep from the goats, and to do so early in life in a way that rarely kills them outright. Then those that can't hack it wind up in roles for those that cannot hack it...

In my experience, it's the losers that do most of the bullying. The kids with dysfunctional families who don't have anything going for them. The actually smart, successful, socially adept and resilient kids... often do a lot of posturing and casually put others down... but the kids who go out of their ways to be bullies are not our future stars.

"Hack" what. It's not like being a bullied dweeb precludes someone from a good career and family.

And also those who can't or won't be bullied are not placed on a track for the best societal roles.