Indian Country Today Media Network will be examining how discrimination is being addressed in three South Dakota school districts.
Racism is most tragic when it affects children, and for many years, the schools in South Dakota were noted for problems. At least three school districts in South Dakota, including Rapid City, Winner, and Sisseton, are exploring ways to counter discrimination.
In the Rapid City Public Schools, cultural programs and encouraging racial acceptance has been a priority of the school superintendent, Tim Mitchell. However, the school’s alarming rate of arresting students is being questioned by the American Civil Liberties Union.
An ACLU letter addressed to the administrators of RCAS (Rapid City Area Schools), said, “We are concerned that RCAS is over-relying on law enforcement to address misbehavior by students, and as a result young people—particularly American Indian youth and those with disabilities—are being unnecessarily funneled into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
“According to the Rapid City Journal, there were 658 arrests of students between the 2007-2008 and 2012-2013 school years. This includes 216 arrests of middle school students and 33 arrests of elementary school students. Data reported to the U.S. Department of Education indicates that, during the 2009-2010 school year, 290 students were referred to law enforcement and 195 were arrested, including several middle and elementary school students,” the letter stated.
United States Department of Education data shows that the Rapid City Schools do not expel students from school, but the rate of arrests of Native students with and without disabilities is disproportionate to other students. According to the ACLU and Department of Education data for 2009-2010, the most recent data available, 4.2 percent of the American Indian students were referred to law enforcement and 3 percent were arrested, compared to only 1.6 percent of white students referred and 1 percent arrested.
“I am an educator and when a child does something wrong, you don’t call the police right away. These children were 8, 9, 10 years old,” said A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association. “They are arresting them instead of developing programs. It is blatant racism and just wrong. The children go into the pipeline-to-prison, and that arrest doesn’t go away, and then they are targeted. It’s not just Indian children, it’s disabled children.”
Mitchell said the school system opted not to speak with the ACLU. In an email to ICTMN, he wrote that the school system “expressed our appreciation for the thoughts, ideas and suggestions raised in the (ACLU) letter. We felt the issues raised are important and that we do address them on a daily basis. We did not perceive a need for any further discussion with the ACLU and told them we are mindful of all these issues and we address them on a regular basis.”
Mitchell added, “If patrons utilize our complaint process we are able to collect information from both sides, guarantee due process, and work to determine a successful outcome.”
In 2006, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Winner Public Schools for the same pipeline-to-prison tactics, many of which have now been corrected by the new superintendent there.
For many years, the Winner School District was cited by the Sicangu Lakota for intense discrimination against their children. Before the 2006 ACLU lawsuit, the Native graduation rate in Winner was next to none and Native students, some as young as 11 and 13, were regularly being arrested for minor infractions.
Progress has been made but it did not come without resistance. Four years after the court decided against Winner, Attorney Courtney Bowie did not see the school district making any attempt to comply. “We were pretty committed to going back to court, but then Superintendent Bruce Carrier came in at the beginning of the 2011-2012 year. His changes have been rapid and sincere, which was a nice change. He takes a child centered approach.”
Bowie said the superintendent is approaching discipline “in a new way that we really appreciate. Suspensions have gone down from 36 a year to six, and now they have in-school suspension with instruction. They set up an alternative learning center, which has been helpful, and we have kids who like him and respect him.”
The graduation rate has improved dramatically in Winner, said ACLU Attorney Stephen Pevar, who served on the case throughout the years. Before 2010, only one Native student and sometimes none, graduated. In the last two years, 12 students graduated.
“Did Indian kids suddenly get better or are teachers better today?” Pevar asked. “It tells you that progress is being made by well meaning and dedicated professionals. We have come a long way, baby, and it has taken a tremendous effort in both Indian and white communities.”
Pevar said Antoine v. Winner School District was “an exceedingly important lawsuit.” The school population was about 33 percent Native in the lower grades and dropped below 5 percent in high school.
The case was filed in 2006 when Antoine and other children were picked up from the school by the police for minor problems, like pushing in line. “With Antoine, his grandmother happened to come to pick him up and sees him being handcuffed and placed in the police car, and no one had contacted the mother,” Pevar said. “The teachers would see a fight involving an Indian boy and immediately they said it was gang related, where with a white kid, they’d say boys would be boys.”
According to the ACLU report, the school took statements from students and used the statements to prosecute them in juvenile and criminal courts. The class-action lawsuit claimed that the schools discriminated against Native American students and were hostile toward Native American families.
The new superintendent has eliminated police referrals, however, progress falls short where role models and culture are concerned. While both are considered important to Native student success, the Winner School District has yet to incorporate the kinds of cultural programs Rapid City has implemented.
“We were talking about hiring Native American role models in Winner,” Bowie said. “There was a young superstar basketball player and we said, ‘Why don’t you recruit him to coach?’ But the administration refused to recruit. Instead they said, ‘We will allow them to apply.’ But not allowing them to apply would be illegal. The law demands that you do that.”
Jennifer Trucano, the attorney defending the Winner School, declined to comment because the lawsuit is still active. Bowie said they were pleased with some aspects of the school’s compliance, but added, “They need to get more role models in the school. Right now the Native staff consists of a truancy officer, a lunch lady, and a Native American advocate.”
“Our clients would also like to see more slots open on sports teams,” Bowie noted that the local white students attend programs that require transportation and equipment costs. “A Native American athlete may be a natural but if he doesn’t have the training, it’s going to be hard for him to make the team.”
Bowie said the communication between the tribe and the district has improved. “There is an advocate, which permits the superintendent to be in touch with the Native community, so we have building leaders, three parents, an advocate, members of the Tribal Education Department always attends the meetings,” she said.
Part 3 will look at an unusual situation where the school board claims the graduation rate of Native students is 100 percent and the school has incorporated Native programs, yet, the school continues to face charges of discrimination.