BEDFORD — The U.S. Department of Education is investigating a complaint filed against Bedford County Public Schools concerning a February incident involving the Confederate battle flag at Jefferson Forest High School.

“This is just the first step,” said Ali Braswell, co-founder of the Hate-Free School Coalition in Orange County, North Carolina, who filed the complaint. “I was notified on May 29 that an investigation has been launched and I am very pleased with the government’s quick response.”

Braswell said the Hate-Free School Coalition — which was founded in Orange County in 2016 to petition the Orange County School Board to ban the Confederate Flags — advocates for bans in other communities in North Carolina and Virginia and now has multiple chapters in both states.

A spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., confirmed on Friday the department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the complaint.

Braswell filed the complaint in February following the incident on 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.

“The complaint was about the Confederate flag incident,” Braswell said. “But the problem is all over Bedford County.”

Bedford County Public Schools spokesman Ryan Edwards said division officials could not comment on the issue.

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 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 that “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.”

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.”

“I think we should include specific language to include Confederate or Nazi flags,” Hicks said during the May 9 meeting.

Braswell, a resident of Durham, North Carolina, was present at Thursday’s school board meeting and spoke during the public comment period about the board’s decision not to include a specific ban on Confederate flags in the dress code.

“I would like to thank Mr. Hicks and Mr. Johnson for supporting a ban on Confederate flags,” Braswell said. “The rest of you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Jessica Taylor — who has spoken in favor of a ban on the Confederate flag at every school board meeting since the incident in February — also discussed the May 9 vote during the meeting Thursday.

“Are we waiting for racist violence in Bedford County before we get a ban?,” Taylor asked, referencing the August 2017 car attack at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and resulted in multiple school divisions in North Carolina and Virginia placing a ban on the Confederate Flag. “Does someone have to die before the right thing is done?”

Braswell on Friday said she has spoken to several Bedford County residents who are in the process of filing additional complaints against the school division with the Office for Civil Rights.

“This is just the beginning,” Braswell said. “We are not going away. What happened at Jefferson Forest woke people up. We will not stop until there is a specific ban on the Confederate flag because there can be no progress until that symbol of hate is gone.

“The chickens have come home to roost in Bedford County,” she said. “A change is coming even if we have to bury this school division in OCR complaints.”

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Reporter

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

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