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Orange Co. High School Celebration of Black History Turns Political

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ORANGE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - Some parents in Orange County are upset and angry because they believe a high school performance turned political.

Orange County High School held an event in celebration of black history on Thursday, March 12. The program included historical speeches and songs, but also included students reciting things like, "I was falsely harassed for selling cigarettes and was put into a choke hold eventually leading to my death. I can't breathe. My name is Eric Garner."

Students with the event wore T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter,” and “I Can't Breathe,” referencing several high-profile police incidents from across the country.

“I support the young people. They didn't show anger, they didn't show defiance. They were presenting information in a way that they were trying to deal with issues. And they kept a recurring theme throughout the night was our lives matter,” said Brenda Tanner, school superintendent.

Some parents were so upset that they kept their children home from school Monday. Angry parents say the production was political and inappropriate for the elementary-age students who took part.

“The real reason everyone is upset is because they've tried to tell children not to trust our police officers here in the community, not only here but across the country,” said Art Magner

On social media, people mentioned threats of violence and protesting at the schools. Additional law enforcement officers patrolled county schools on Monday to make sure everything went smoothly.

“I would hope that anyone who stayed for the program, at the end would kind of come out and breathe a sigh of relief and say ‘you know we're thankful here in Orange County that we don't have to deal with some of these issues that were brought up in the program',” said Town of Orange Police Chief James Fenwick.

Superintendent Tanner plans to have a team to review productions in the future to make sure they aren't too political. She also wants to encourage parents, if they are concerned, to reach out.


Press release from Orange County Public Schools:

The annual Black History program was presented at Orange County High School on Thursday, March 12, 2015. In its fifth year, it is a program designed by high school students to present information about Black History, up to and including current-day events. As a club sponsored activity, students select a theme and work to develop and coordinate performances. This year's program consisted of a wide-range of performances, including recitals, a play, songs, dance, and poetry readings. Inventors, Civil Rights leaders, musicians, and others were featured in the program. Additionally, current day issues involving the deaths of young blacks were highlighted.

Following the program, School Board members received concerns regarding the content and delivery of the program and are working to respond to parents and members of the Orange County community. Because of a posting on a social website, individuals have incorrectly assumed that the program was designed by and presented by students at Lightfoot Elementary – it was not. Some in social media have portrayed the program as designed to promote a political agenda.

The School Board realizes our responsibility to continue a dialogue about the issues and concerns that have been raised as a result of this program and we are working diligently to respond to parents. Administrators are organizing the information and developing plans to address issues so that we can move forward in a productive manner. Procedures for program development and review will be addressed along with other issues that have arisen.

We as members of the School Board regret that the nature of the program was offensive to some, but truly believe that there was no intent to offend or disparage anyone.

The Orange County School System appreciates the continued support of local law enforcement to insure the safety of our students and staff.

We acknowledge full support of Dr. Brenda Tanner, Superintendent of Orange County Public Schools. The School Board takes responsibility for the Black History Program.


Press release from the Orange County Sheriff's Office:

The Orange Sheriff's Office first became aware of the Orange High School “Black History Month” performance on Thursday evening, March 12, 2015 when an angry parent stopped by the office to report the events of the performance. This information was relayed to Sheriff's Office command staff. On Friday morning, March 13, 2015, we received a number of calls from other citizens and parents who felt that the performance was an ‘anti-police' event. We immediately notified school administrators of the calls and what we had heard. We checked on the High School that day and found that everything was quiet and normal. There were no problems concerning this issue at the schools on Friday. As of Friday evening, everything seemed calm with respect to school safety.

Over the course of Saturday, March 14, 2015, I kept in touch with Chief James Fenwick of the Orange Town Police Department and Dr. Brenda Tanner, the school superintendent. As the day progressed, we noticed a number of social media posts and received a number of calls from concerned parents about references to potential violence at the school the following week. We attempted to determine the origin of these references but our efforts always ended in “I heard it or saw it somewhere”. We were never able to determine a specific threat or who it was made by.

On Sunday, March 15, 2015, Major LaCasse and I met with Chief Fenwick, Dr. Tanner and Gene Kotulka, the Director of Student Services for Orange County Public Schools. We discussed the issues at hand and formulated a plan to provide additional police coverage for the schools mentioned in the social media posts. I contacted Chief Clay Corbin of the Gordonsville Police Department and he agreed to provide additional officers for Gordon Barbour Elementary School for March 16 and beyond.

On Monday, March 16, 2015, additional Town of Orange police officers and Orange County deputies were on the grounds of Orange County High School to insure the safety of the staff and students. Additional officers have been on the grounds all day and remained until the end of classes. Additionally, extra deputies have been appearing at other Orange County schools to insure their safe school environment. The Orange Sheriff's Office, Town of Orange Police Department and Town of Gordonsville Police Department will continue to maintain a high presence at each of our schools. I would like to thank Chief Fenwick and Chief Corbin and their agencies for all of their help!

I, as Sheriff, take my responsibilities for the protection of our schools and children seriously and we will continue to insure that additional manpower is assigned when and where it is needed. Please be assured that we are doing everything that we can to protect the safety of your children who attend Orange County Public Schools.

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