Apr. 7, 2006 – Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit allege that racial discrimination against Native American youth is rampant in a South Dakota school district, leading to disproportionately high incarceration and drop-out rates for Indian students.
The class-action lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Pierre last week on behalf of former and current students, accuses the Winner School District of disciplining native youth more harshly and more frequently than their white classmates. The suit also names the districtâ€™s superintendent and two principals.
Plaintiffs say that in the highly stressful, racially hostile educational environment, Native American students face an increased likelihood of suspension, arrest and prosecution, and are more likely to drop out. The suit alleges that school officials, acting as informal law-enforcement agents, have isolated children as young as ten and coerced them into signing confessions of criminal wrongdoing, which are in turn used against them in juvenile court.
"Kids are impressionable; kids are frightened of authority; they bow to authority," Catherine Kim, lead counsel in the suit, told The NewStandard. "So for law enforcement agents, or agents that act like law enforcementâ€¦ to exploit that weakness is absolutely wrong and unconstitutional."
In one case, according to court documents, a white student shoved 12-year-old Sam Antoine and called him a "prairie nigger." In response, Antoine, who had no previous history with the juvenile-justice system, reportedly hit the student. Principal Brian Naasz, a defendant in the suit, called the police and only requested that they arrest Antoine. Antoine was charged with "simple assault" and "disturbance of school," sentenced to six months probation and community service, and listed as the "instigator" of the fight on school records. Additionally, plaintiffs claim that Naasz discouraged Antoineâ€™s guardian from retaining a lawyer, stating the prosecution was a "pretty routine procedure."
Native American students are about three times as likely to be suspended in middle school as their white classmates.
On several occasions, Principal Naasz also had police arrest Native American sixth-grader Mindi Felix, another plaintiff in the suit with developmental disabilities. In the first instance, in April 2005, before she had any criminal record, Felix hit a white student who had, according to the complaint, scratched and cursed one of Felixâ€™s Indian friends. Naasz allegedly called police to arrest the two Indian girls, but not the white girl.
Before having them taken away by police, court documents state, school officials isolated native students, including Antoine and Felix, and intimidated them into writing and signing affidavits describing the altercations. Plaintiffs say these affidavits, written without the consultation of a parent, guardian or attorney, were often the only information used to prosecute the students. They also allege that in many cases, police conducted no independent investigation of their own.
According to court documents, school officials isolated native students and intimidated them into writing and signing affidavits describing the altercations.
Jennifer Ring, executive director the Dakotas ACLU, said the plaintiffs alarmed at the schoolsâ€™ failure to provide due process, to inform students of their rights, and to notify families before a student is interrogated or forced to sign a confession.
"If these [cases] are being treated by school officials as a police matter, then thereâ€™s a real concern about the protections that we require for criminal defendants, particularly juvenile criminal defendants, where the children may have extenuating circumstances that they could state," Ring said.
The Winner school district, located in Tripp County near the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, enrolls about 980 students at six schools. Using records and statistics provided by the school district, plaintiffs state that Native American students are about three times as likely to be suspended in middle school as their white classmates. In high school, Native Americans represent almost all school suspensions. They are also ten times as likely to be referred to the police for minor school infractions in both middle and high school than white students are,according to the complaint.
"The real harm is of course the inherent indignity of being discriminated against," attorney Kim told TNS, "but when you see the drop-out numbers in this school district, it is truly appalling."
Mary Fisher, superintendent of the Winner school district, told TNS she would not comment on pending litigation. However, in response to earlier allegations from the ACLU last June, Fisher told the Rapid City Journal that Indian students have access to all school activities and are treated fairly.
But Ring, who has lived in the Dakotas all her life, insists problems with racism against Native Americans in the district go far beyond the ten years of a racially hostile environment described in the lawsuit.
She said that parents and other Native community members have approached her at community events to talk about their experiences with discrimination when they were students, asking her: "Where were you when I was going to high school? Where were you when this was happening to me?"
Ring acknowledged Dakotas ACLUâ€™s late arrival. "All I can say is: â€˜Iâ€™m sorry, we should have been here. This should have been stopped long ago,â€™" she told TNS. "This has been going on literally for generations."
This is not the first time that formal charges of racism have been levied against Winner schools. In 2000, the US Department of Educationâ€™s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) required the district to revise its disciplinary policies and procedures to eliminate discrimination three years after receiving complaints from community members. But even those belated efforts were aborted four years later, when OCR ruled that the district had complied with their requests.
However, some Rosebud Sioux families believed the discrimination was continuing, and in June 2005, they tried to bring the issue to OCR again with new evidence that their children were being unfairly targeted. But according to the legal documents, "OCR did not respond until nine months later, by which time most of the complainants had left the District, either dropping out of school altogether, incarcerated in a detention facility, or transferring to another district."
Attorney Kim said that in sequestering students and forcing them to write and sign confessions without being informed of their full legal rights, the Winner school district has violated studentsâ€™ Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and equal protection. She said they also are charging the defendants with breaking the Civil Rights Act.
Plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, but want the school district to stop its alleged discriminatory practices and policy of coercing confessions from students.
The district has until the end of April to respond.
Lee said they hope to vindicate the rights of individual students at Winner schools, but added that this issue is not limited to just one district. Describing what she called the "school-to-prison pipeline," Lee said she is alarmed at the growing number of law-enforcement mechanisms in schools, including zero-tolerance policies, security guards and ordering studentsâ€™ arrests, despite a lack of evidence of increased school violence.
"This really is part of a nationwide phenomenon wherein public schools are pushing kids out of classrooms and into juvenile- and criminal-justice systems," Lee said.