MADISON HEIGHTS - Five years after a complaint was filed through the Office of Civil Rights against Amherst County Public Schools, the division has fulfilled requirements and the federal government no longer is monitoring its compliance.
Amherst County Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold said during the county school board’s Sept. 12 meeting he received a letter from OCR, an agency of the U.S. Department of Education, within the past month stating the division fulfilled all of its requirements. The complaint that sparked the agreement in 2014 stemmed from an incident of an assault involving a black student and a white student, school officials have said.
The “aggressor” student was removed from school and parents filed the complaint against the division, which provided hundreds of pages of data and information, according to the division’s website. The Amherst school system made adjustments after examining its process and procedures, had employees take part in diversity training and other measures to ensure equity in handling discipline and an equity working group was established at Amherst County High School.
Arnold said while the division is no longer under the agreement much good and positive results has come from it that educators will continue moving forward.
“While we’re glad to not have that on our shoulders, the things that came about because of the agreement have been good for Amherst County and I don’t want that to stop … I feel great about the direction we’re going,” Arnold said.
Arnold said the division’s draft comprehensive plan, a blueprint for steering the division through the next five years he presented to the board during the meeting, contains a section dealing with equity, handling discipline and ensuring the hiring in the school system is accommodating of diversity. The board will discuss the plan that took months of work to develop during its Sept. 26 retreat session at Sweet Briar College.
Chairman Mike Henderson said he recalls the shockwaves the division felt when the complaint was first filed and the “mad scramble” and extra time and effort it led to. “There was a lot of brainpower and time that went into it,” Henderson said of the strides made. “We’re seeing the benefits and fruits of it … we do need to stay vigilant and stay on top of it because it can turn around in a second. But it’s been good for our school system.”
The many requirements were new but no one was complained and rolled up their sleeves to do what was needed, board member Abby Thompson said.
Board member Francisco Mayo said educators looked themselves in the face in making sustainable improvements.
“One of the things that impressed me about the process is how we worked very hard to make it a part of our culture,” Mayo said of the adjustments.
Vice Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon said she supports an office or officer position added to push equity practices.
“I’ve seen a great coming together here in the county culturally, even if it was brought on by a bad situation,” Vice Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon said. “Definitely a good thing has come out of it. And I’ll be the first to be watching it continues to be positive and never goes backward …”
The meeting took place in the Amherst Education Center in Madison Heights as part of a recent effort for the board to hold more meetings at facilities throughout the division. The board received a report on an alternative suspension center program that is housed at the AEC and was implemented in early February.
During the 2017-18 school year from early February through the end of the school year, 191 students were suspended out of school while during the same span in 2019 with the new program in place that number was cut to 76, a 60% reduction, according to data presented.
Board members said reducing suspensions and giving students access to counseling and opportunities to continue their academics while undergoing suspension ties in with strides made in the OCR agreement.
Arnold said only 25% of the students who so far have participated in the alternative suspension program have returned a second time. “We believe it is deterring future behavior as well,” he said.
In other news, the board welcomed a new student representative, Carson Peters, a senior at ACHS who will take part in meetings this school year. Peters said he has grown up in the county, is captain of the golf team, plays basketball, is part of the National Honor Society and is president of the Amherst Theater program. He said he is focused on finding ways to help secure appreciation for the arts it deserves throughout the school system and the Amherst community.