The Wolf Point School District is facing a complaint of discrimination against its Native American students for the second time in the past 15 years. Last week, the Fort Peck Tribes filed what’s called a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on behalf of their children.
Yellowstone Public Radio’s Brie Ripley and Montana Public Radio’s Nicky Ouellet team up to bring us this story.
Louella Contrarez dropped out of Wolf Point High School decades ago. She says she never got the sense her teachers cared if she succeeded at school, so she left. Three years ago, she watched her granddaughter do the same thing.
"She was gonna graduate, and she was getting bullied at the school," Contrarez says. "Eventually she got beat in the school. She had been talking to the principal and the counselor. And she just felt like they weren’t listening to her. She has anxiety attacks now, and she kind of went into a depression."
Contrarez herself later worked for her GED and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. But her granddaughter is still reeling from her experience at school.
"For a while there, she didn't want to come out of her room. she didn't go anywhere," says Contrarez.
Contrarez and her granddaughter are members of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe. The school they dropped out of is on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Most of the students who go there are Native American, but most of the staff who teach there are white. Contrarez has three more kids to raise through this school district, and she says they’re already starting to face bullying and discrimination because they’re Native American.
And their tribe agrees. Last week, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation filed a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on behalf of their children, asking the departments to take action and solve what they allege is pervasive discrimination against Native students in violation of federal law. This is the first time tribes have file a complaint with both the federal departments justice and education on their children's behalf, based on school policy in a school district that has a majority Native population.
"This is a place where there’s been a legacy of culturally insensitive treatment of Native students in the school district," says Attorney Melina Healey.
Healey is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Albert and Ann Mansfield Foundation — a legal fellowship for attorneys to work with underserved communities on social justice issues. She’s been working with the tribes on the Fort Peck Reservation since 2011. She filed the complaint.
"I kept hearing stories of people saying, 'We were kicked off the basketball team. Non-Native people get to stay on the basketball team, they get favorable playing time, and we have to leave the school in order to play basketball.' And my response, as a person from New York City, was kind of like — what’s the big deal there? That doesn’t seem like a clear issue of discrimination to me. And I had to learn to overcome my ignorance on that issue to understand how critically important basketball is not only to the region and to eastern Montana but to this Native community and to many Native communities," Healey says.
The report’s allegations range from the school district failing to train their staff and administration in Native culture; that teachers, administrators and fellow students bully Native students; and that Native American students are disproportionately disciplined and denied academic opportunities.
Healey is seeking a consent decree from the Departments of Education and Justice that will address these issues.
Maylinn Smith, Indian Law Clinic Director at the University of Montana explains:
"What you do with a consent decree is you identify what the areas of concern are and then you identify how those problematic areas are going to be changed."
Smith says to look, for example, at what happened at the University of Montana after the DOJ investigated a 2012 Title IX complaint against the school for its handling of sexual assault cases.
"They had to provide education on sexual assault — and incoming students have to take the assessment to determine whether they understand what sexual assault is," Smith says. "It could be something like that, that’s part of a consent decree."
Healey, the attorney filing the suit on behalf of the tribes, says that for positive change to happen for Native students, the Wolf Point School District needs to communicate better with Tribal members and offer more cultural sensitivity training for teachers and administrators.
"Our hope is that will start the conversation rolling and start to address some of the issues that have become so systemic in that school district," Healey says.
The Department of Education affirmed instances of discrimination against Native students by administrators and staff of the Wolf Point School District back in 2003 in response to the last federal complaint filed. But this new complaint suggests that wasn't enough, and that systemic racism still pervades.
According to Native American Ph.D Shane Doyle of Bozeman, systemic racism is when, "an institution is either unable or unwilling to acknowledge and respect the lifeways and culture of a distinct minority group that functions within that system."
The Departments of Justice and Education have a little less than 180 days to respond to the complaint. If they proceed with an investigation, the school district will be under federal observation for a number of years following the issuance of that consent decree.
Jeana Lurvick is an attorney representing the school district. She says the school can’t comment on current litigation, but read from a statement:
"Wolf Point takes claims of discrimination seriously and will cooperate with federal agencies completely and promptly."
Lurvick added that Wolf Point believes deeply in its community, public education and its kids.