South Dakota Schools Discriminating Against Native American Students, Charge ACLU and Tribe

June 23, 2005 12:00 am

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Minority Students Nationwide are Caught in “School-to-Prison” Pipeline, ACLU Says

WASHINGTON — In a complaint filed today with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of 14 Native American families, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Attorney General of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe charge that the public school district in Winner, South Dakota discriminates against Native American children in its disciplinary practices and denies these students their right to equal educational opportunities.

“Through its discriminatory practices, the Winner School District systematically pushes Native American children out of its schools, often into the juvenile justice system,” said Robin Dahlberg, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Legal Department. “To permit Winner schools to remain above the law will encourage other school districts to engage in the same illegal activities with the same impunity.”

ACLU 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.”

At the request of Native American parents, the Office of Civil Rights of the Education Department initiated an investigation into the school district’s disciplinary practices in 1997. Three years later in 2000, it entered into an agreement with the district requiring the schools to amend those practices and take steps to eradicate racial harassment. In 2004, the department announced that the school district had complied with the terms of the agreement and closed the case.

The ACLU charges, however, that the Winner School District manipulated its records to present the Office of Civil Rights with a grossly distorted picture of its disciplinary practices and racial relations in its schools. In a report submitted to the department in May 2003, for example, the district claimed that there were no racial disparities in the way in which it disciplined its high school students. Yet, according to school records, during the 2002-2003 school year, Native American high school students accounted for 85 percent of all in-school suspensions and 59 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, but made up only 14 percent of the student body. In fact, three-quarters of all Native American high school students had been suspended at some point during that year.

The ACLU further charges that this type of discrimination continues. According to the complaint, Caucasian students frequently engage in racially motivated name-calling, taunting, teasing and bullying that school officials do little if anything to stop. When Native American students respond, however, they are punished.

In one instance, during a science class in January 2005, a Caucasian middle school student harassed a 12-year-old Native American special education student and hit him with a ruler. When the Native American student hit back, the principal had him arrested and suspended him from school for two days. The Caucasian student received no punishment until the Native American student’s mother complained. The principal then gave the Caucasian student a one-day in-school suspension.

Not surprisingly, Native American students are leaving the district in droves, said the ACLU. They transfer to other districts many miles from their homes, drop out of school altogether or end up in juvenile correctional facilities because of alleged school misconduct. While Native Americans represent about one-third of the Winner Elementary School student body, they account for less than one-fifth of the high school student body. According to school records, only five of the 12 Native American students who were enrolled in the 11th grade during the 2002-2003 year continued on to the 12th grade.

“No parent should be forced to choose between giving his child a better education or maintaining his self respect,” said Rodney Bordeaux, Chairman of the Rosebud Tribal Council Education Committee. “We want our children to have the best educational opportunities possible, but if public schools maintain a hostile environment, our children will only suffer.”

The ACLU said that the problems in Winner are not isolated, and that Native Americans around the country face educational disadvantages and discrimination. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, less than two-thirds of Native Americans aged 18 to 24 have graduated from high school, and less than one in ten Native Americans over the age of 25 have completed four years of college. Native American school children score lower than any other group in basic levels of reading, math and history. Furthermore, Native Americans account for three percent of all dropouts nationwide despite accounting for only one percent of students.

“The ACLU has received so many complaints over the years about mistreatment of Native American students in school districts across South Dakota, and we see this as a problem that cannot be ignored,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “The government can no longer allow Native Americans to be treated as second-class citizens.”

Today’s complaint was filed by Kim, Dahlberg, and Stephen Pevar of the national ACLU; Ring of the ACLU of the Dakotas; and Dana Hanna, Attorney General of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

A copy of the complaint is online at: /node/39774.

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