Posted on December 28, 2018

‘I Feel Invisible’: Native Students Languish in Public Schools

Erica L. Green and Annie Waldman, New York Times, December 28, 2018


“I’m just there,” Ms. Fourstar said. “I feel invisible.”

Her despondency is shared by other Native students at Wolf Point and across the United States. Often ignored in the national conversation about the public school achievement gap, these students post some of the worst academic outcomes of any demographic group, which has been exacerbated by decades of discrimination, according to federal reports.

The population is also among the most at risk: Underachievement and limited emotional support at school can contribute to a number of negative outcomes for Native youths — even suicide. Among people 18 to 24, Native Americans have the highest rate of suicide in the nation: 23 per 100,000, compared with 15 per 100,000 among white youths.

Citing these factors, in 2014, the Obama administration declared Native youths and their education to be in a “state of emergency.”

While the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education runs about 180 Native-only schools, more than 90 percent of Native students attend integrated public schools near or on reservations, like Wolf Point. A wealth of rarely tapped data documents their plight.

In public schools, white students are twice as likely as Native students to take at least one advanced placement course, and Native students are more than twice as likely to be suspended, according to an analysis of federal civil rights data conducted by ProPublica and The New York Times. Native students also score lower than nearly all other demographic groups on national tests, and only 72 percent of Native students graduate, the lowest of any demographic group.

In Wolf Point, the academic disparities between Native students and other groups are even wider, federal data shows. White students are more than 10 times as likely to take at least one advanced placement class as their Native peers.

Native students are twice as likely to receive at least one suspension, mirroring a national trend. Wolf Point’s Native students also struggle academically: only 65 percent were proficient or better in reading, compared with 94 percent of their white peers, and only 8 percent were proficient or better in math, compared with about half of the white students, according to the most recent state assessment data from the 2013-2014 school year. Only half of Wolf Point’s Native students graduate from high school, compared with about three-quarters of their white peers.

In 1886, Washington designated Fort Peck, a remote area now composed of two million acres of Montana’s northeastern plains, to the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes.CreditAnnie Flanagan for The New York Times

In June 2017, the Tribal Executive Board of Fort Peck filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights requesting a federal investigation into the tribe’s contention that the Wolf Point school system discriminates against Native students.


According to the complaint and to interviews with dozens of students and families, Wolf Point schools provide fewer opportunities and fewer social and academic supports to Native students, who make up more than half of the student body, than to the white minority. The junior and senior high schools, which together have an enrollment of about 300, shunt struggling Native students into a poorly funded, understaffed program for remedial and truant students, often against their will.

On the school’s basketball court, a coach has used derogatory slurs, such as “prairie Indians” and “dirty Indians,” in front of Native students, according to the tribal board’s complaint. Native students were dropped from sports teams after giving birth, while white students were not, a violation of federal law. The complaint did not name the coaches, but the coach at the time denied the accusations.

In the most extreme cases, discouraged students have turned to suicide, the complaint states. Three months before the complaint was filed, a Wolf Point junior took his own life during school hours shortly after being berated by the principal for poor attendance, two students say. Nearly a fifth of Native high school students in Montana reported that they attempted suicide at least once in a year — more than double the rate of white students, according to a Montana education agency survey from 2017.


The Education Department has not opened an investigation into the complaint, a year and a half after it was filed. A senior official for the department said it was under evaluation.

Jeana Lervick, a lawyer representing Wolf Point schools, declined to respond to specific questions, which she said alluded to “rumors” and made “many inaccurate assumptions.”


A long history of failure.

Since passage of the Indian Education Act in 1972, Congress has tried to give tribes more resources and responsibility for educating their children. But most schools that serve Native youths remain under the authority of states and municipalities, which have historically rejected tribal input and insisted on control over curriculum, funding and staffing.

The Obama administration instituted initiatives on Native education, such as grants to strengthen partnerships between tribes, states and school districts. The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to consult with tribes about education plans.


Then the White House led a listening tour to gather testimony from Native families and educators. In Los Angeles, a Native school official said limited funds led to cutbacks in Native language and cultural programs at her school. In Anchorage, a Native student said a school staff member addressed her as “squaw,” an offensive term. In Oklahoma City, federal officials heard about how a “Redskins” high school mascot led students to create posters alluding to skinning opponents and sending them “home on a ‘trail of tears.’”


Last year, the Education Department concluded a nearly four-year investigation into a complaint filed by the Wiyot Tribe, alleging discrimination in the Loleta Union Elementary School District in rural Northern California. The investigation found that the school’s principal called Native students a “pack of wolves” and grabbed and hit them, and it found that Native students were denied special education services and received harsher discipline than whites. The district agreed to change its policies.

This year, a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit could proceed against the government on behalf of Native American students at Havasupai Elementary School, near Grand Canyon National Park. The complaint said the school, run by the Bureau of Indian Education, was persistently understaffed, lacked a functioning library and adequate textbooks, and provided inadequate special education services. Because of “excessive exclusionary discipline,” some students barely attend classes.

But Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, scaled back the Obama administration’s emphasis on investigating claims of systemic civil rights violations, and the future of complaints based on wide disparities like those seen in Wolf Point remains uncertain.

{snip} In March, the [Education Department] withheld funds from the Bureau of Indian Education because the agency had not complied with ESSA, according to a letter sent by the department.


In 1886, Washington designated Fort Peck, a remote area now composed of two million acres of Montana’s northeastern plains, to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. It also agreed to educate the tribes’ youth.

Initially, that meant forcing Fort Peck’s parents to send their children to boarding schools on and off the reservation. Native children had their hair chopped off, their traditional garments replaced with uniforms and their names westernized. Students were disciplined for speaking their languages and practicing their rituals.

“The federal government created a policy to culturally annihilate us,” said Diana Cournoyer, the interim executive director of the National Indian Education Association, an advocacy organization.

In the early 20th century, white homesteaders pressured the federal government to open up unused lands of Fort Peck to non-Native settlement. Many white farmers put down roots around the town of Wolf Point.

The settlers’ children and some mixed-race children attended Wolf Point’s public schools. By the 1920s, Native students joined them and gradually became the majority of Wolf Point’s enrollment. Yet white residents continued to hold nearly all of the seats on the school board, responsible for all major educational policy and staffing decisions.

Dana Buckles, a member of the Tribal Executive Board since 2012, attended school in Wolf Point, where he was pegged as an “instigator” in the 1960s for questioning why the Native students were seated in the back of the classrooms.


Even when his children went through the Wolf Point schools decades later, Mr. Buckles said, “they were getting rid of Indian kids because they didn’t want to deal with them.”

In August 2013, seven Native residents sued the Wolf Point School District, saying that political boundaries were carved to give the minority white voters outsize power. Seven months later, a consent decree was signed to remedy the district’s unjust voting lines. Today, three of the six board members are Native residents or of Native descent.

Still, only 18.5 percent of school staff members are Native, according to a 2014 report, although more than three-fourths of Wolf Point’s students are Native American or mixed. The high school principal and the superintendent are white.


Despair can be deadly.


Over the years, tribal members have criticized Wolf Point schools for not doing more to prevent suicide. In 2010, Dalton Gourneau, a senior at Wolf Point High School, shot himself hours after he was suspended from athletic activities and his appeal to administrators was rejected.


Suicide remains a scourge. During Ms. Ragland’s 15 years in the Wolf Point schools, the district has averaged about one suicide a year, she said. In the past few years, she said, she has filled out the paperwork for several state grants to help her address Native students’ trauma. But the high school principal and district superintendent did not have the time or the interest to sign off, and her proposals were shelved, Ms. Ragland said.

Dale DeCoteau, a suicide prevention coordinator for the reservation’s health department, said Wolf Point High School “can have some big barriers and cause hopelessness.”

A Native advocate is shown the door.

Filling the job that Ms. Gourneau helped establish, Ms. Cheek, a Lakota educator and community organizer, was hired in 2016 as a Native student advocate for a half-dozen schools on the west end of the Fort Peck reservation.

She tried to make school more tolerable. She gave students awards, like T-shirts and gift bags, to motivate them to stay in school and excel. She introduced them to Native cultural events, like local dance and drumming groups. She invited representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union to Wolf Point to educate families about their rights, and she helped create a Native parent advocacy group.

“Students would cry because they felt mistreated,” Ms. Cheek said.

The administration did not welcome her initiatives. She was told that she also had to give rewards to white students. (She did not.) She was given a public bench in the hallway to speak with students about sensitive issues like abuse and pregnancy. When she referred Native students to high school counselors, she said, she was frequently brushed off.


The education director fired her, accusing Ms. Cheek of disrespect toward Wolf Point administrators.

Much as white authorities suppressed Native culture for generations, the schools hinder Native students from succeeding and forming the next generation of tribal leadership, Ms. Cheek said.