Ashley Academy Elementary (copy)

Teachers at Ashley Academy for Cultural and Global Studies complained about air quality and mold at the school, and called for a new building. The school board approved the installation of new HVAC units instead.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether the Forsyth County school board and district discriminated against students at an elementary school on the basis of race.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter responding to a federal complaint filed by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of Action4Equity, a local organization of concerned citizens.

The complaint, filed in August before the start of the 2018-19 school year, alleges that the local school board and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools failed to take appropriate or timely action when responding to indoor air quality concerns at Ashley Academy for Cultural and Global Studies, which has a predominantly black and Hispanic student population.

In February 2018, several teachers from the school addressed the school board during a public meeting with concerns about the indoor air quality and mold. A third-party test was conducted soon after and the board approved installation of new HVAC units to help improve indoor air quality.

Advocates for the school argued then that it was a temporary fix to a larger problem, pressing for the construction of a new Ashley Academy school building.

The complaint compares the board’s and district’s actions in 2015 to environmental concerns at Hanes and Lowrance middle schools, which had a higher percentage of white students. The complaint argues that more swift action was taken there than at Ashley Academy.

Brent Campbell, spokesman for WS/FCS, said the district was notified by OCR that an investigation had been initiated based on the complaint. He added that they cannot comment on the ongoing investigation at this time and will fully cooperate with OCR.

Peggy Nicholson, co-director for the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, received the letter from the OCR notifying her that the investigation would take place.

In the letter, OCR stated it will serve as a “neutral fact-finder” in the investigation and will collect “relevant information” from sources such as the school district as needed.

“Our goal is the prompt, appropriate resolution of the complaint,” the letter reads.

The federal complaint asks the OCR to order the school district to build a new Ashley school as soon as possible and that until completed students and teachers whose health was affected by the indoor conditions would be given the chance to transfer to a new school.

The complaint asks “compensatory education services” be provided to any students who missed days in the 2017-18 school year because of health problems caused by the school environment. And it asks for a comprehensive study of conditions in all school buildings to see if similar problems could be existing at other schools.

As far as a timeline of the investigation, Nicholson said cases of this nature have taken years to compete.

“I anticipate it will be a longer timeline,” she said of this investigation, adding that there is the possibility of resolutions between the complainants and school board and district during the investigation.

Nicholson said the comments and promises that Malishai Woodbury, the new board chairwoman, ran on in the 2018 election regarding equity could be helpful in terms of working toward a resolution.

At the Dec. 13 school board meeting, members of Action4Equity expressed optimism toward working with the new board on a series of issues in the school district.

“This is an opportunity to show their commitment to equity and to show their commitment to safe school environments,” Nicholson said, echoing statements from that board meeting.

“Right now we have a new school board and we are very hopeful that they are looking to work with the community,” Kellie Easton, coordinator for Action4Equity, said.

“A lot of them ran on platforms of equity and wanting to do what’s best for all the children of Forsyth County.”

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mbragg@wsjournal.com 336-727-7278 @braggmichaelc

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