NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A school district in eastern Tennessee has agreed to implement changes after a federal investigation found several incidents of race-based harassment, including students holding a mock “slave auction” to sell Black students to their white classmates.

The Department of Justice announced the settlement Monday after initially alerting the school district in 2023 that it would launch an investigation. It said school officials had been “deliberately indifferent to known race-based harassment in its schools, violating the equal protection rights of Black students,” according to a news release.

The investigation was prompted by a lawsuit filed by a mother of a student, identified only as “K.R.”, who reportedly faced the brunt of the harassment. That suit was settled earlier this year.

Both the lawsuit and DOJ found that K.R. experienced 12 racial harassment incidents during the 2021-22 school year. They often involved “public humiliation in the common areas of his school," such as being handed a drawing of a Klansman riding towards a monkey and walking into a bathroom to find a white student holding a mock slave auction in which K.R. was “sold” to the highest bidder.

“No student should endure mock slave auctions or racial slurs meant to invoke a shameful period in our country’s history when Black people were treated as subhuman,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

While the DOJ stated Monday that the school district cooperated with the investigation, the settlement report also states that the school district “disagrees with the department's findings and conclusions related to allegations of race-based harassment and/or violence, and disagrees that it or its agents acted with deliberate indifference.”

“Our school system is — and always has been -- dedicated to serving and protecting all students, regardless of race,” said Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson. “Therefore, we entered into the agreement with DOJ to continue pursuing those same goals, and we look forward to working with the Department regarding the same in the future.”

According to the DOJ settlement, the school has agreed to eight changes that will be implemented over the next few years, such as hiring a compliance officer to oversee racial discrimination and harassment complaints. Other reforms include creating a reporting portal to track complaints; updating its racial harassment and school discipline polices; training staff on identifying and responding to racial harassment and discrimination; and informing students and parents on how to report harassment and discrimination.

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