Officials with Bedford County Public Schools announced the division is entering into an agreement with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after a complaint was filed against the division concerning an incident at Jefferson Forest High School.

Bedford County Public Schools division spokesperson Ryan Edwards issued a statement by email at 5:46 p.m. Friday saying the division has entered into a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights concerning a February incident involving the Confederate battle flag at Jefferson Forest High School.

According to the U.S. Department of Education website, complaints against a division can be “resolved before the conclusion of an investigation, if the recipient expresses an interest in resolving the complaint and OCR determines that it is appropriate to resolve the complaint because OCR’s investigation has identified issues that can be addressed through a resolution agreement.”

“Earlier this year, Bedford County Public Schools received notice from the Office for Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education that it was opening an investigation into an alleged racially hostile environment at Jefferson Forest High School,” the statement from Edwards said. “The school division firmly believes that it has not violated any federal civil rights laws. Upon receiving the notice, the school division promptly complied with OCR’s request for information and records related to the allegations.

“Even before receiving the notice of investigation from OCR, the school division had already taken steps to reduce incidents of racial bias, to foster a positive community, and to eliminate disparities in all areas of school life and academic achievement through its work with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. In addition, the school division has conducted additional training for administrators on topics of recognizing, reporting and investigating complaints of harassment and discrimination. These important efforts are ongoing.

“Consistent with this commitment, rather than devoting resources to the OCR investigation, the school division has chosen voluntarily to employ those resources to its ongoing efforts to combat racial discrimination and harassment and to promote diversity and inclusion by entering into a Resolution Agreement with OCR. The requirements of the Resolution Agreement are congruent with and will positively enhance the school division’s ongoing commitment to battle incidents of racial bias and to foster a positive community for all students.”

On Friday night the school division did not provide a copy of the resolution agreement it said it has entered into with OCR. According to the U.S. Department of Education website, “the provisions of the resolution must be tied to the allegations and the evidence obtained during the investigation and will be consistent with applicable regulations” ... and “OCR will monitor a resolution agreement reached with the receipt before the conclusion of an investigation.”

The original complaint against the division was filled by Ali Braswell, co-founder of the Hate-Free School Coalition in Orange County, North Carolina — which was founded in 2016 to petition the Orange County School Board to ban the Confederate flag. Braswell could not be reached for comment Friday night. Jessica Taylor, the local representative for the Bedford chapter of the Hate-Free School Coalition, also could not be reached Friday night for comment.

Braswell filed her complaint in February following the incident Feb. 4, the first day of Jefferson Forest High School’s Spirit Week, which was “Country vs. Country Club” day and students were allowed to dress accordingly.

During a class change, several students photographed themselves displaying Confederate battle flags in different areas across campus. One photo shows a student draped in the flag, captioned with a defense of the banner as a symbol of “history and heritage.”

The photographs initially were shared on Snapchat before being uploaded to Facebook on Feb. 5 by a parent of a Jefferson Forest High School student. Dozens of residents attended meetings of the Bedford County School Board following the incident to express their opinions on how the division should address the issue. Some urged board members and administrators to revise the school division’s dress and conduct code to include a ban on racially offensive images like the Confederate flag. Others opposed the ban, with some wearing clothing that displayed a Confederate flag, and others expressing concerns that a ban would violate the First Amendment rights of students.

In response to the incident, division officials recommended changes to the school system’s Student Conduct Code for the 2019-20 school year, with an emphasis on the dress code.

The code at the time prohibited offensive, profane and vulgar items and included a list of specific banned items that did not include Confederate flags.

The recommended revision said, “BCPS operates in a manner that respects differences based on sex, race, color, national origin, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, ancestry, marital or parental status” and bans “attire that has language or images that are offensive, profane or vulgar” and “is reasonably likely to cause a substantial disruption to the learning environment.”

The new student conduct code also states “some school or classroom activities and curriculum may require specific dress guidelines,” and “any such requirements will be explained by the school staff and addressed in a course syllabus/parent letter.”

The new code omits any kind of list of banned items.

During its May 9 meeting the school board voted 5-2 to adopt the recommended changes. School board members Richard Downey, Marcus Hill, Julie Bennington, Susan Kirby and Marcus Leamy voted to approve the changes; John Hicks and Jason Johnson voted against the revised text, citing concerns the revision was “too vague.”

The news release issued Friday night did not outline the terms of the agreement or what actions would be taken by the division going forward.

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Reporter

Shannon Keith covers Bedford County for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5530.

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