Education Department investigates discrimination against Native students

Photo courtesy: Banter Snaps

Claims of excessive discipline and unfair treatment of Native students in the Wolf Point School District

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights will investigate claims that the Wolf Point School District discriminates against and mistreats Native students in violation of federal civil rights laws. Advocates filed a 46-page complaint on behalf of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in June 2017. Included were dozens of accounts by Native students describing harassment by school officials and documentation of different treatment compared to their White peers. The Department of Education’s announcement was made on the heels of joint reporting by the New York Times and nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica revealing Wolf Point schools’ ongoing systematic neglect of Native students including failure to sensitively address suicides among local Native youth.

The department will investigate allegations that Wolf Point School District staff:

  • Subject Native students to more severe discipline than their white peers (Native students are twice as likely to receive an in- or out-of-school suspension as white students in the same school);
  • Warehouse disabled Native students in an unstructured, understaffed “alternative program,” where students have gone without instruction for weeks at a time;
  • Fail to provide basic accommodations for disabled Native students;
  • And, ignore racial harassment in classrooms.

“Education should be a source of hope and opportunity,” Roxanne Gourneau, a Wolf Point parent, grandparent, and tribal member said in a press release. “Yet instead of providing a safe learning environment, the Wolf Point School District adds to the long history of educational abuses of our tribal communities. My son Dalton was a victim of this abuse. In the midst of a local Native youth suicide crisis, in the middle of a school day, they kicked him off the wrestling team and, without trying to contact me, cast him out in tears into a blizzard. Dalton went home and took his own life. No parent should endure the pain of losing a child, yet it is too common here. The school district has done more to fuel Native students’ trauma than to support their education. Change is long overdue. I am hopeful that this investigation by the DOE may finally bring that change.”

The allegations now under federal investigation amount to violations of several civil rights laws and fall within the Department’s enforcement authority. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the agency has a duty to ensure schools receiving federal financial assistance do not violate prohibitions on discrimination and retaliation based on race, color, and national origin. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the agency enforces similar protections for disabled students.

“We are hopeful about the DOE's decision to investigate the profound, persistent, and unlawful discrimination and mistreatment inflicted on Native student in Wolf Point schools,” said New York University School of Law Acting Assistant Professor Melina Healey, who filed the tribes’ complaint along with the NYU School of Law Racial Justice Clinic in a press release. “Tribal children have suffered unfairly for years in the Wolf Point School District. We trust that the DOE will fulfill its duty to enforce the law and protect these students’ rights by completing a swift and thorough investigation that leads to much-needed reforms, and we will monitor and support the process. We salute the courage of the victims of discrimination who have come forward to share their experiences and hope that, under the protection of the federal investigation, others may now feel safe in sharing their own stories of mistreatment in the Wolf Point schools.”

The federal investigation could have a variety of outcomes, including facilitated resolution between the school district and Native families or a written agreement identifying the actions the district will take to comply with anti-discrimination laws. If unlawful discrimination is uncovered and school officials do not agree to remedial efforts, the Education Department may initiate administrative proceedings against the school district or refer claims to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation and potential litigation.

The outcome is also likely to have profound implications for other Native students and their communities confronting similar issues with public schools.

The 23rd Navajo Nation Council announced legislation last month calling for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission to investigate school systems on and near the Navajo Nation. Information from public hearings would be utilized to take action on what is in the Nation’s best interest. Their goal is to develop an effective legal and administrative response by each branch of the Nation.

Navajo Nation Health, Education, and Human Services Committee member and legislation sponsor Council Delegate Olin Kieyoomia (Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti, Tohatchi, Bahastl’a’a’) said the legislation was drafted in response to a recent incident that occurred at Cibola High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico in which a Navajo student’s braid was cut off by a teacher, who also called another student a “bloody Indian.”

“This discriminatory behavior is remnant of the days when children were sent to boarding schools, and children were forced to cut their hair and were called derogatory names. And now today, they are trying to silence our identity, so as Navajo leadership, we need to shed light on this for our children and protect them,” said Delegate Kieyoomia.

The teacher no longer works for Albuquerque Public Schools as of November 30th; but these were the latest in a long line of incidents involving the mistreatment of Navajo and Native American students by representatives of area school systems.

For Delegate Kieyoomia the legislation serves as a way to “get the word out there to other schools” who have Navajo children in their classrooms “to be careful and be aware that the Navajo Nation will protect its children.”

Native American students face cultural insensitivity, incompetence and even the “school-to-prison-pipeline” on their path to an education. Nationally, Native American youth are 30 percent more likely than White youth to be referred to juvenile court than have charges dropped, which results in their early entry into the system. Image courtesy: American Civil Liberties Union

The concerns of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes and the Navajo Nation are sadly consistent with the ongoing crisis in education for Native students in public schools across the country. As documented by me for ICT in September 2017, systemic problems range from racially and culturally insensitive and incompetent teachers to ableism and low graduation rates.

“Recent statistics from the Bureau of Indian Affairs have noted that between 29 percent and 36 percent of all Native American students drop out of high school. They mostly drop out between the 7th and 12th grades. These numbers are even higher in areas where parents of Native American children complain of a major lack in understanding of native culture,” an editorial in Native Youth Magazine states.

“Many tribal leaders and education experts say these dismal statistics reflect, at worst, overt discrimination—and, at best, the alienation that Native students feel in a school system that has few Native teachers overall as well as limited lessons on Native American history and culture,” Rebecca Clarren wrote in The Nation.

This is even more complicated when disabilities are involved. Some of the most troubling issues for misunderstood Native American students involve “Childhood and Developmental Disorders” including learning disabilities, Autism, and ADHD whether formally diagnosed or presumed on the part of educators due to entrenched ableist beliefs rooted in racist stereotypes about Native American students being “unintelligent.” The same institutional racism that sees disabilities in Native Americans underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, drives Special Education being disproportionately used as a form of discipline against students of color, whether they are actually disabled or not, for “behavioral issues.”

The Native mother* of a 9-year-old son diagnosed with ADHD detailed her anguish to me via email over her child being the target of racism and ableism by White teachers and administration at his new, predominantly white middle-class school. Not only was her son not afforded accommodations and protections he was entitled to under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), once a “problem” was identified (relating to his disability) others were quickly found even after he was reassigned to a new classroom as his mother demanded. The straight-As Native student who loved school grew to hate it and began failing after being repeatedly humiliated as the “brown kid with behavioral problems.”

“There were days that I would keep him home for ‘mental health days.’ Andy* got up on Monday morning the last week of school and was so upset by the prospect of another week of school that we finally withdrew him. The following year we enrolled him at another elementary school in the same school district. He continued having problems at the new school, however, the new school took a real interest in making school a positive experience for Andy. He is [still] attending the same school and is doing extremely well. Later on, we learned that the old school had been rejecting open-enrollment students with learning or emotional disabilities but accepting their non-disabled siblings.”

In February 2016, the National Council on Disability welcomed “the Equity in IDEA rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, which seeks to address widespread disparities in the treatment of disabled students of color who too often enter the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ which refers to all policies and practices that have the effect of pushing students—especially those most at risk—out of classrooms and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

Despite this, Native American students are still disproportionately disciplined more than most other racial groups with a dropout rate twice the national average. They represent less than 1 percent of the student population, but are 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.

“Many education analysts have noted that when educators don't acknowledge Native American culture with their Native student body, the students begin to feel disenfranchised, said Native Youth Magazine. “There have been a number of schools that have successfully implemented programs that teach educators and staff about Native culture, giving them a better perspective on how to interact with Native students. The schools that have these ‘cultural sensitivity’ classes have seen a noted decline in the amount of disciplinary actions they take against Native American students. Some credit the sensitivity training itself, but only time will tell which programs were the most effective.”

For information on Native-based solutions including those organized and run by youth, check out NERDS, Pathkeepers for Indigenous Knowledge, and Education Week.

***Identifying details have been changed or omitted to protect the child and his family.

Follow correspondent and Press Pool manager Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter.

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