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Department of Justice investigating violence against Norfolk students and district response, sources say

Norview High School facade
Photo by Ryan Murphy
Families of current and former Norview High School students say they've been contacted by federal investigators asking about violence their students have faced at the school.

Following a WHRO investigation, families of Latino and transgender students who faced violence at Norview High School say they’ve been contacted by federal investigators.

Attorneys from the Department of Justice are investigating violence against students in Norfolk Public Schools, according to several people who told WHRO they’ve spoken with the attorneys.

WHRO reported in January that Latino students at Norview High School were assaulted because of their race. The families of those students said school administrators weren’t working to prevent the attacks.

Patricia Bracknell is the head of the Chamber for Hispanic Progress and was featured in that story.

She said a representative from the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of Virginia contacted her to talk about the incidents.

“He had read the story and that’s why he reached out,” Bracknell said.

Bracknell said the investigator told her his office is looking into the incidents as race-based hate crimes. She said they’ve since interviewed two families who publicly spoke about the violence.

WHRO confirmed with one of those families that they talked to federal investigators.

The Department of Justice investigates reports of hate crimes, as well as cases where discrimination would rob students of access to education.

Sometimes, it enters into settlements with school districts to force them to address issues. In recent years, that’s ranged from districts providing insufficient language services to non-English speakers to failing to prevent harassment and discrimination for disabled or minority students.

It’s not only Latino families who say they’ve heard from the Department of Justice.

Another Norfolk woman, Melissa Corrigan, said she also spoke to an attorney with the DOJ’s Civil Rights division in March.

Corrigan reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s office more than a year ago about violence her son, a transgender student named Matt, faced at Norview High School.

She said Matt was harassed because of his identity and the harassment escalated to physical violence.

Corrigan said her son was sexually assaulted in a school bathroom and, on one occasion, punched in the face during class in full view of school staff.

“He was definitely feeling targeted because of it. And more than that, he wasn't feeling like he was getting any protection from administration,” Corrigan said.

Corrigan said despite Matt reporting the violence to administrators, including filling out paper incident reports, the district never notified her. She only learned about it from her son, who was initially reluctant to share it with her.

They spoke at school board meetings and emailed every city elected official they could, with little response.

Feeling like the district was doing nothing to address the situation and feeling unsafe, Matt left Norfolk Public Schools altogether. After several months of participating in the Virtual Virginia program, Corrigan said Matt is struggling to learn outside the classroom and is now planning to get his GED rather than finish high school.

Before they pulled Matt out of school, Corrigan sent an email to the DOJ in spring 2023. She had a brief conversation with someone from the agency then, but she also thought that had been a dead end after she didn’t hear anything back.

Nearly a year later, Corrigan said an attorney reached out in March and met with her and her son for two hours.

Corrigan said he told her the U.S. Attorney's Office was investigating whether Norfolk Public Schools followed protocols related to dealing with student violence. He indicated to Corrigan that the DOJ had seen enough evidence the district wasn’t following the rules to warrant assigning an attorney to investigate.

Federal agencies under President Joe Biden have notably moved to aggressively protect the rights of transgender youth, in contrast to Donald Trump’s administration, which sought to erase such protections.

The Eastern Virginia District of the U.S. Attorney's Office would not say whether it's investigating Norfolk Public Schools or related violence.

“By longstanding policy, DOJ generally will not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about investigations,” a representative wrote in an email.

Norfolk Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Byrdsong declined to be interviewed for this story.

In response to questions from WHRO, Norfolk schools spokeswoman Madeline Curott said the district “is not aware of any Department of Justice investigations regarding concerns from the Hispanic community.”

Curott said the system is working on bringing in a nonprofit to host workshops on inclusivity and said the district has hosted events to better engage the Spanish-speaking community.

NOTE: Norfolk Public Schools is a member of the Hampton Roads Education Telecommunications Association, which owns the broadcast license for WHRO News.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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