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MSU-Northern Settles Discrimination Complaint Filed By Native Student Group

Montana State University - Northern

Montana State University-Northern has resolved a discrimination complaint filed last year by a Native American student group.

The Havre-based university and the Sweetgrass Society student group signed on to the agreement, which settles the complaint alleging racial discrimination and First Amendment violations at the school.

Senior Amy Murdock is the Sweetgrass Society’s president.

"We got everything we asked for. The main thing we wanted is to move forward in a positive change so other Native American students – other minority students – could come to Northern and not feel discrimination," Murdock says.

The complaint filed last year with the Montana Human Rights Bureau centered around an incident involving Northern’s "Hello Walk."

That’s an outdoor staircase where campus student clubs paint various messages.

In 2016, the Sweetgrass Society painted "#NoDAPL" on the stairs to protest construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

As Yellowstone Public Radio reported last year, an organization inside The Office of Student Activities decided the hashtag was vandalism and painted over the Sweetgrass Society’s steps.

The American Civil Liberty Union of Montana represented the group in its complaint against the university. Alex Rate is the ACLU’s legal director.

"The claim was that the university unlawfully discriminated against the students by painting over their step when it didn’t do the same with other student groups," Rate says. "Furthermore, that the university chilled or violated the students’ First Amendment rights to free speech."

The agreement announced Monday resolves those complaints and includes several components.
Again, Alex Rate:

"For starters there will be a diversity education program for students, faculty and staff. That includes annual implicit bias training, so that people understand challenges facing indigenous students at MSU-Northern. There is a plan that will be in place to acknowledge racial diversity issues, and a review of the hiring processes at the university to ensure there are candidates of color and indigenous candidates for openings with the university."

MSU-Northern’s new Director of Indian Education, Margarett Campbell, describes the mediation process as, "One of the more emotional processes I’ve ever been involved in. And at the end of the day, what came out of that is the chancellor and the Sweetgrass students have a much better relationship; a much healthier, reciprocal relationship."

Sweetgrass Society President, Amy Murdock, is optimistic, but acknowledges change doesn’t happen overnight.

"The administration and faculty are – you can tell some of them are really trying, but I kind of feel like it’s too early to tell. We still have a lot of work to do," Murdock says.

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