The Department of Justice reached an agreement with the Tenn. school district. on racism

HAWKINS COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Hawkins County Schools “have intentionally remained indifferent to known incidents of racial harassment in their schools” and will spend at least three years in a federal settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the DOJ says .

The settlement follows a Department of Justice investigation into 16 incidents of alleged racial harassment and/or violence at Church Hill Middle School that occurred during the 2021-22 school year, as well as nine incidents during the following school year at the high school. A federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of the student sparked the investigation.

The settlement agreement, which requires the system to hire a compliance officer starting next school year, notes in its introduction that the school system disagrees with the Justice Department’s findings regarding the allegations. It also said the school system “disagrees with the claim that it or its agents acted with deliberate indifference.”

According to the Department of Justice, an investigation found that a racially hostile environment was created in Hawkins County schools. The Department of Justice says incidents that contributed to this environment included a mock “slave auction” of black students, repeated use of the N-word by white students, and a “monkey of the month” campaign intended to ridicule black students.

In a news release, the Department of Justice said that while the school district took some steps to acknowledge some incidents of harassment, the response was ultimately insufficient to protect the constitutional rights of black students.

“No student should have to endure mocking slave auctions or racial slurs intended to evoke a shameful period in our country’s history when Black people were treated as subhuman. Racial harassment undermines a student’s ability to feel safe, eliminates any hope of creating a supportive learning environment, and violates the Constitution’s most fundamental promise of equal protection. The Department of Justice remains committed to protecting the civil rights of all students and will ensure that Hawkins County schools take all actions necessary to end racial discrimination in their schools.”

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division

The investigation began in March 2023 after the already resolved court case, Qualls v. Hawkins County Schools, has been submitted. The case primarily involves a student identified as “KR” who was reportedly the main target of the harassment. The Department of Justice stated that Hawkins County Schools was fully cooperative and eager to reach an agreement on the findings.

As part of the agreement, which you can read in full below, Hawkins County Schools is required to implement the following new reforms:

  • Hiring a compliance officer to oversee the effective resolution of racial discrimination and harassment complaints;
  • Retaining a consultant to assist the school district in implementing the agreement and creating a non-discriminatory learning environment for all;
  • Creation of a new electronic reporting portal to track and manage complaints and the county’s responses to complaints;
  • Updating racial harassment and school discipline policies to more closely track and respond to complaints of racial harassment more consistently;
  • Training staff to identify, investigate and respond to complaints of racial harassment and discriminatory disciplinary practices;
  • Informing students and parents about how to report harassment and discrimination;
  • Implementing listening sessions, school climate surveys, training and educational events on identifying and preventing racial discrimination, including discriminatory harassment; AND
  • Analyzing discipline data and changing policies to ensure non-discriminatory enforcement of discipline policies.

You can read the entire agreement here:

Hawkins County Schools Superintendent Matt Hixson provided local NewsNation affiliate WJHL with the following statement:

“As noted in the Agreement with the Department of Justice itself, Hawkins County Schools “disagrees with the Department’s findings and conclusions regarding allegations of racial harassment and/or violence and does not agree that the school or its agents acted with willful indifference.” Our school system is – and always has been – committed to serving and protecting all students, regardless of race. That is why we have entered into an Arrangement with the Department of Justice to continue to pursue those same goals, and we look forward to working with the Department in this regard in the future.

Matt Hixson, superintendent of Hawkins County Schools

In a letter to the school district’s legal representation, the Department of Justice detailed discrimination at two schools during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.

Probe reveals fake slave auctions, KKK drawings and more

The Department of Justice requested all documents and materials related to the allegations, amounting to approximately 2,000 pages, along with audio and video recordings.

In total, the Department of Justice identified 16 incidents of racial harassment or violence at the district’s middle school during the 2021-22 school year. These included incidents such as a “slave auction,” a KKK drawing, swastika graffiti found by an employee, and numerous comments that included the use of the “n-word” or the term “monkey.”

The Department of Justice said in a letter that there were nine additional incidents at Hawkins County High School during the 2022-2023 school year. The letter shows that, in addition to numerous racist comments, one of the cases included a death threat to KR.

The Justice Department said in its legal analysis that Hawkins County Schools maintained “deliberate indifference” to harassment that was so severe that it deprived KR of access to educational opportunities. The letter also said the school district failed to quickly investigate the allegations and failed to follow its own policies.

According to the Justice Department, the school district failed to respond appropriately and did not modify its response. Additionally, the Department of Justice found that Hawkins County schools discouraged and even engaged in retaliation against reporting harassment.

“In at least one case, school officials discouraged further reporting and became involved in the matter
retaliatory conduct,” the letter reads.

The Department of Justice cited an audio recording of KR being harassed by a KKK drawing distributed during lunch, after which the student raised his concerns with an administrator in March 2022. The administrator reportedly referenced KR’s prior behavior and said “and I don’t, don’t do anything big…”

The letter states that the district also failed to comply with three proposed hostile environment remedies. District officials reportedly told stakeholders that the bullied student would identify two trusted adults to whom the matter could be referred instead of administrators. Hawkins County Schools also partnered with Nashville-based STARS to host an anti-bullying program and talk to specific groups of students who have harassed Black students. The district also proposed consulting with the local NAACP chapter and asked the state to review its response to these issues.

“None of these solutions have been fully implemented,” we read in the letter.

The Department of Justice wrote that there was no indication that administrators at the middle school responded to any complaint made to “trusted adults.” The letter said Nashville-based STARS hosted one event, but there were no targeted interventions for some students. Beyond the initial meeting, the NAACP reports no advice or support was sought, and the state has not reviewed its handling of the incidents due to ongoing legal proceedings.

The administrator of the middle school in question addressed students and staff at a school assembly and emailed statements and report cards to parents. The statements recalled Hawkins County Schools’ harassment policy and addressed some “racial issues,” according to the letter.

But the Justice Department says racial harassment did not stop or slow down after the rally.

In reaching the agreement, the United States agreed to close the investigation without further enforcement.

The agreement will remain in effect until it is determined that the district is in full compliance with all obligations. Both parties expect Hawkins County Schools to be in full compliance by May 2027.

When the initial Qualls v. Hawkins County Schools the lawsuit was settled, the school board agreed to pay the court $110,000, of which almost $60,000 was deposited into an account for K.R.’s educational needs