The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate allegations that a public school system in Montana discriminated against Native American students, according to a letter sent by the department to attorneys representing the students.
The students, from the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, filed a complaint with the federal government in June 2017 alleging the Wolf Point School District “deprives them of basic rights to which they are entitled in school.” The discrimination included dozens of instances of bullying, racial slurs and disproportionate discipline of students who are not white, according to the complaint.
In its Dec. 28 letter, the department said it would investigate issues raised in the complaint, including charges that Native American students were subject to more severe discipline than white students, that Native American students were not properly evaluated for special-education services and that the school system failed to respond to complaints of racial harassment.
Melina Healey, an attorney for the tribes, said in an interview she was optimistic about the department’s decision to investigate “persistent discrimination and mistreatment” of Native American students in Wolf Point schools.”
“I hope it will lead to necessary resolution and much-needed reforms in the district,” she said.
Healey said the Education Department has authority to instruct the school system to revise its policies to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws and, if the district fails to do so, can refer the case to the Justice Department for follow-up.
Education Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill confirmed the Office for Civil Rights has three open investigations into Wolf Point and two additional cases under evaluation. She declined further comment because the investigations are ongoing.
The department’s letter announcing the investigation arrived shortly after publication last month of a lengthy article by the New York Times and ProPublica detailing the allegations and their impact on Native American students on the reservation.
Jeana Lervick, an attorney with the firm representing the Wolf Point School District, said in an email the system had been notified by the Education Department about the investigation and would cooperate. Wolf Point schools, she wrote, “work exceptionally hard to ensure that all students receive an excellent education, and we are extremely concerned about the allegations.”
Wolf Point Schools Superintendent Rob Osborne did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the investigation.
Wolf Point, the largest town on the Fort Peck reservation has a population of 2,600 and is 57 percent Native American. Although they are a majority, tribe members do not control the school board and, according to the original complaint, the native representatives on the board are often overruled on issues that affect native students.
“Non-Native domination of the District has created a culturally unwelcoming school environment for Native students,” the complaint reads. “It undermines Native students’ sense that they can be future teachers and school leaders, further perpetuating their under-representation.”
Healey, the attorney for the tribes, said Friday that she was not aware of any changes made by the school system to address charges made in the original complaint.
“We hope the school district will start to listen to and include the native families and students that they’ve mistreated and discriminated against for years,” she said. That process, she said, would include investment in Native American cultural competency for teachers and staff, reducing suspensions and expulsions of native students, and adding native faculty and staff.
For Roxanne Gourneau, a tribe member whose children and grandchildren attended school in the system, the announcement of an investigation signaled a solution could be in sight.
“The school district has done more to fuel Native students’ trauma than to support their education,” she said in a statement Friday. “Change is long overdue. I am hopeful that this investigation by the DOE may finally bring that change.”