Federal investigators are in northeast Montana this week looking into alleged racial discrimination in public schools.
Three investigators from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ Seattle region spent Monday speaking with Wolf Point School District administrators and families.
Their visit stems from a federal complaint filed by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in June 2017 that alleged widespread discrimination against Native American students.
Examples from the complaint include school administrators segregating students based on race instead of academic ability, Native students being bullied for long, traditional hair and kicking Native girls off the high school basketball team because they had babies while white players were allowed to stay on. School staff are quoted saying negative stereotypes and racial slurs, like when a coach reportedly said “dirty Indians” during basketball practice.
Lillian Alvernaz is indigenous justice legal fellow at ACLU of Montana, which filed the complaint on behalf of the tribes with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. Alvernaz, who’s Dakota and Nakoda, says the Office for Civil Rights’ investigation is narrowly focused on potential violations of the federal Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act outlined in the complaint.
"Although the issues we heard about and the stories we heard about are much larger than that narrow focus," she adds. "There are systemic issues, institutional issues with the public education system with the Indian education relationship."
Alvernaz says the Office for Civil Rights investigators will spend Tuesday and Wednesday interviewing more families, teachers and coaches and collecting documentation of the alleged discrimination.
She says the complaint traces the school district’s current culture back to federal policies and boarding schools that preferenced white homesteaders over tribal members in the early 1900s.
"Non-Indian education was brought to Indian people and tribes as a form of assimilation and genocide, and it was only recently, within the past 50 years or so, that education started to be used as a tool to help Indian people," Alvernaz says.
The ACLU, Office for Civil Rights and Fort Peck youth advocates are hosting a series of community meetings this week.
Louella Contreras says she hopes the meetings impress upon teachers and educators the true meaning of a saying she hears often: “The youth is our future.”
"To me, when they say that, do they really know what they’re saying?" Contreras says. "Because if they do, they would realize that education should not be a struggle for our youth. It should be a chance for our Native children to realize a dream for themselves, a school system that cares about their dreams.”
Contreras says her granddaughter filed complaints detailing bullying but school administrators did little in response.
“They never did to talk her. It was like they were ignoring her.”
She says a Native American teacher singled out her grandson. She thinks it was racially based and adds it’s complicated. She says other parents tell her their children haven’t experienced mistreatment.
“And I say that’s fine," she says. "If your kids made it through there without having any trouble, then that’s good, you should count yourself to be lucky, but there are kids, many kids, who have had trouble.”
She says she hopes the investigation will make a difference in how the administration reacts to complaints like hers.
“You can’t change a person’s racism, but if the school starts making people accountable when there is a racist problem or something does come up that looks like it’s racist, if they deal with it, make those people accountable, then maybe that’ll stop it.”
The Office for Civil Rights’ investigation could result in a set of specific actions the school district must take, along with a timeline, to address the alleged violations. The Office’s final report is expected in the fall or summer this year.
An attorney for Wolf Point School District and a representative from the U.S. Department of Education did not respond to an interview request by deadline.