ACLU Fights to End Discriminatory Prosecution of Native American Students

March 28, 2006 12:00 am

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National “School-to-Prison-Pipeline” Trend Exemplified in South Dakota

SIOUX FALLS, SD – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the Winner School District in South Dakota, charging that the District maintains an environment hostile to Native Americans by, among other things, disciplining Native American students more harshly than Caucasians and by forcing them to sign “confessions” for minor rule-breaking, which often leads to juvenile court convictions.

“The treatment received by Native American students in Winner and throughout the region is completely different than that of their white counterparts,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “These experiences demonstrate the reasons why Native American children so often fail to reach graduation — hostility of peers, discrimination of school officials and knee-jerk police involvement.”

ACLU national staff attorney Catherine Kim said the problems in Winner are part of a nationwide trend of “get tough” policies on school misconduct, which lead to increases in suspensions for trivial conduct and the use of law enforcement to handle minor school discipline. According to Kim, research consistently shows that students of color are far more likely than Caucasian students to feel the brunt of this trend, which advocates refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Nationwide, minority students are suspended at rates of two to three times that of other students, according to studies by youth law experts. They are also more likely to be subjected to office referrals, corporal punishment, and expulsion.

“Winner is a prime example of the national school-to-prison trend,” Kim said. “Minority students are being pushed out of the classroom and into jail cells at alarming rates and for very minor wrongdoings.” Native American students in Winner are three times more likely than their Caucasian counterparts to be suspended, and ten times more likely to be referred to law enforcement.

At the heart of the class-action complaint filed today is the issue of coerced confessions at the Winner Middle and High Schools in Tripp County. The ACLU said the principals of the schools have been singling out Native American students for perceived violations of school rules, and then forcing them to write a “confession,” which is in fact a legal document. The principal, having acted in a law enforcement capacity, then calls the police, who come to the school and take the child into custody often without notifying parents, and forwards the “confessions” to the Tripp County State’s Attorneys. These prosecutors, both of whom serve as legal counsel for the Winner School District, use the confession to secure a conviction against the child in juvenile court.

Dana Hanna, the Attorney General of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and an ACLU cooperating attorney in today’s lawsuit, noted that while the school district is the second largest employer in the county, only two employees out of more than 100 are Native American. That disparity is reflected in the treatment of Native American students, he said.

“According to the Winner School District’s own statistics, only two children were punished for racial harassment between September of 2003 and June of 2005,” Hanna said. “Native American students are accused of gang-related activities for walking in groups of three or more or wearing bandanas, while their white counterparts are encouraged to wear bandanas at sporting events. And Native Americans are actively discouraged from participating in sports activities.”

Out of Winner Elementary School’s 340 students, 30 percent are Native American, while only 14 percent of the 320 Winner High School students are Native American. Between two and four Native American students have graduated from Winner High School in recent years. Students seeking a less punitive environment often have no choice but to leave behind their Rosebud Sioux Tribe community and board at schools located outside the county.

“Native American students are doomed before they start in Winner, and that is the plan,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Robin Dahlberg. “The Native American student population plummets in the higher grades because these kids can no longer bear the discrimination.”

Last June, acting on behalf of 14 Native American families, the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, documenting the racial harassment and discriminatory discipline in Winner schools. But the Office of Civil Rights did not respond until March 2006, nine months later, and by then, most of the complainants had left the district — either transferring to other districts, dropping out of school, or becoming incarcerated. Today’s federal class-action lawsuit seeks to challenge not only the discrimination, but also the unlawful policy of coercing confessions from Native American students.

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