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Civil Rights

Complaint: District’s Native Students Experience Discrimination

— January 23, 2019

The U.S. Department of Education plans to investigate allegations that the Wolf Point School District in Montana discriminates against Native American students by pushing them into underfunded programs and publicly reprimanding them, leading to suicides.

The U.S. Department of Education plans to investigate allegations that the Wolf Point School District in Montana discriminates against Native American students a year and a half after receiving a complaint from tribal leaders.  On December 28th, the department’s Office for Civil Rights notified the attorney representing the tribal executive board, which includes members of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation that it would look into the complaint.

According to the letter, the investigation will focus on whether Wolf Point’s administrators discipline Native students more harshly than their Caucasian peers, while denying them special education evaluations and services.  The department will also determine whether the school district failed to respond to a parent’s allegations that a Native student was racially harassed.  Native American and mixed-race students account for more than three-quarters of Wolf Point’s enrollment rates.

“Tribal children have suffered unfairly for years in the Wolf Point School District,” said Melina Healey, the attorney representing the tribal executive board.  She called for a “swift and thorough investigation that leads to much-needed reforms.”

Complaint: District's Native Students Experience Discrimination
Photo by Dyaa Eldin on Unsplash

The Office for Civil Rights is already looking into a complaint by Louella Contreras that the Wolf Point district failed to provide her granddaughter, Ruth Fourstar, with special education services.  Across the nation, more than 90 percent of Native American students attend integrated public schools near or on reservations.  These students have some of the worst academic outcomes, scoring lower than nearly all other demographic groups on national exams.  In June 2017, the tribal executive board filed a 46-page complaint that described dozens of instances where Wolf Point schools provided limited academic opportunities and social support to Native students.

Native students in Wolf Point were subsequently found to be twice as likely to receive at least one suspension compared with Caucasian students and Caucasian students are more than ten times as likely to take at least one Advanced Placement course as Native American students.  Both staff and parents claim Wolf Point’s schools push Native American children into a poorly funded, understaffed program for remedial students and truants.

Some Native students have turned to self-harm and suicide under these conditions.  Three months before the tribal executive board’s complaint, a Wolf Point High School junior took his own after a public rebuke from the principal for poor attendance.  He was the second Native student to commit suicide under these circumstances in less than a decade.

“Wolf Point Schools works constantly to address the challenges facing our students and in particular, our Indigenous students,” said Jeana Lervick, an attorney representing the school district. “Our district is aware of historical issues in our nation and as educators do everything in our power to address them.”

“Instead of providing a safe learning environment, the Wolf Point School District adds to the long history of educational abuses of our tribal communities,” said Roxanne Gourneau, a former member of the Fort Peck tribal executive board. “The school district has done more to fuel Native students’ trauma than to support their education. Change is long overdue.”


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