U.S. Department of Education begins investigation into discrimination against Native students in Montana’s Wolf Point School District
Lisa J. Ellwood
After years of documented instances of anti-Native racism — including the use of racial slurs and harmful stereotypes by white administrators, faculty, and staff — in a school where 94 percent of Native students are below proficiency in reading, compared to 49 percent of white students, the U.S. Department of Education is starting an investigation into discrimination against Native students in Montana’s Wolf Point School District.
Investigators with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will be visiting with Native students and parents in Montana’s Wolf Point School District this coming week. The visit is integral to the federal government’s investigation into a discrimination complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2017 by Indian Law, Juvenile Law, Racial, and Indigenous Justice lawyer Melina Healey (representing the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes) and the ACLU of Montana.
Included in the 46-page complaint were dozens of accounts by Native students describing harassment by school officials and documentation of different treatment compared to their White peers.
The Wolf Point public school system has historically failed Indigenous students according to investigations carried out by the ACLU of Montana and the Department of Education. The Department of Education affirmed instances of discrimination against Native students in 2003 and monitored Wolf Point Schools from 2003 to 2008. The hostility towards Native students and culture persisted despite this.
According to the complaint:
- Native students in the Wolf Point School District report the use of racial slurs and harmful stereotypes by white administrators, faculty, and staff.
- Native students are disproportionately disciplined and excluded from school, often without due process. At Wolf Point High School, non-white students, most of whom are Native, are more than twice as likely to receive in- and out-of-school suspensions than white students. These suspensions also violate federal and local standards for discipline.
- Native students are routinely denied academic and extracurricular opportunities available to white students.
- Students with academic and behavioral challenges, most of whom are Native, are warehoused in the Opportunity Learning Center, which is understaffed and underfunded.
- 94 percent of Native students at Wolf Point High School are below proficiency in reading, compared to 49 percent of white students as a result of these practices.
- The school environment contributes to Native truancy and lack of interest in school; 80 percent of Native students are chronically absent from Wolf Point High School, compared to 33 percent of white students.
- The harassment and discrimination are also damaging to Native students’ emotional well-being. Native students report feeling discouraged, and even suicidal, because of hostility they face in school.
- When Native residents complain about unequal treatment, district leadership retaliates, including by taking disciplinary action against students and banning parents from school property.
“As Native youth, we want — and deserve — what every other youth wants,” said Ruth Fourstar, a senior at Wolf Point High School, in a press release. “We want access to a meaningful education, to be treated equally, and for our culture to be recognized and respected. Education is a tool for us to show our strength and wisdom. I hope that the Office of Civil Rights investigation will help all the youth in our community benefit from the education system.”
Amongst the complaints the Office for Civil Rights has been looking is one by Fourstar’s grandmother, Louella Contreras, alleging that the Wolf Point District failed to provide Fourstar with special education services.
The Wolf Point School District also has discriminatory hiring practices and fails to connect with Native students and their families. A joint investigative report by nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica and the New York Times revealed that Wolf Point schools’ ongoing systematic neglect of Native students included a failure to sensitively address suicides among local Native youth.
The Fort Peck Indian Reservation, like many others, is trying to heal from a history of discrimination and racism. For generations, assimilationist boarding schools strategically and violently suppressed Native culture, language, and Native children. Additionally, land on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation was opened to homesteading by white settlers who took preferential reservation land allotments. Although most of the reservation’s 10,000 current residents are Native, a small population of white residents controls the Wolf Point municipal government, local economy, and school board.
The Wolf Point School District allegations amount to violations of several civil rights laws and fall within the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ 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.
After conducting interviews with students and parents and reviewing data and other sources of information, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is expected to issue a final report later this year. If the report finds that there are Title VI violations, the District will be required to undertake certain actions to come into compliance with the Civil Rights Act.
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 U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights may initiate administrative proceedings against the school district or refer claims to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation and potential litigation.
“This discrimination is harming a whole generation of Native youth,” said Caitlin Borgmann, Executive Director with the ACLU of Montana. “It’s wrong to deprive these children of the education they deserve, and it’s heartbreaking to see the hurt that it’s causing children and their families. It’s past time to ensure that Native communities see justice.”
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