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Last month, a biracial student filed suit against Bledsoe County's Department of Education, saying she was unfairly suspended for 365 days earlier this year for punching a white peer who called her a racial epithet. On Monday, the district's attorneys denied anyone used a racial epithet on "the day in question" and said the minority student assaulted her peer without provocation.

Attorneys for Bledsoe County denied many of the claims the student put in her lawsuit in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court. One of those claims involved her white peer's family posting a picture of a since-deleted noose on Facebook after the fight.

"These defendants deny that the calendar year suspension was grossly excessive and aver that this action was consistent with Tennessee law," attorneys Scott Bennett and Mary DeCamp wrote in their seven-page response. Bennett is also the Hamilton County Board of Education attorney.

Bennett and DeCamp admitted the parents of the white student "posted various inappropriate messages on Facebook" but denied its relevance. "Should these allegations be deemed [relevant], these defendants aver that school officials asked counsel for the Bledsoe County Board of Education, Howard Upchurch, to notify the parents they were banned from campus," they wrote.

DeCamp declined Wednesday to comment on pending litigation, as did the student's lawyer, Justin Gilbert.

But in their lawsuit, Gilbert said the student endured racist comments on a regular basis in a majority-white Bledsoe County. Though she and her mother reported them to the school, the lawsuit said officials never provided counseling or addressed the systemic racism. Gilbert said his client hit the white student because she'd reached the end of her patience. According to a recent news report from WRCB, the student's mother said her daughter had been in trouble three times this year for defending herself.

"If you walk down the hallway they just holler like 'N,' there goes that 'N,' [and] teachers look [and] they don't say anything," the student said in the report.

In the lawsuit, Gilbert described the 365-day suspension the student received in a letter from Superintendent Jennifer Terry as excessive and based on her race. Terry is being sued alongside the overall district for violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause.

Gilbert wrote that the suspension has caused the student to suffer "emotional distress, humiliation, and deprivation of her right to participate in regular public education free from racial harassment" in the May 8 complaint.

Bledsoe attorneys either denied those claims or said they "required no response" and said school officials properly investigated and responded to reports of harassment. They denied that Terry failed in any of her duties and said the student's family used the wrong "administrative remedies" to appeal her 365-day suspension.

"If harassment persisted, neither [the student] nor her mother reported ongoing harassment to school officials," the response said.

From here, attorneys will ask each other for evidence that could help their cases. There are no scheduled court appearance or trial dates yet.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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