This week, investigators with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) are visiting with students and parents in Wolf Point to learn about their experiences with discrimination in the Wolf Point School District. This comes as part of the federal government’s investigation into a complaint filed with the OCR in 2017 by Melina Healey and the ACLU of Montana on behalf of the Fort Peck Tribes.
The complaint alleges discrimination against children of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in the Wolf Point School District. The Wolf Point public school system is broken and has historically failed Indigenous students. The Department of Education affirmed instances of discrimination against Native students in 2003, and monitored Wolf Point Schools between 2003-2008.
Despite previous monitoring, according to the complaint, teachers and administrators in Wolf Point High School routinely bully and harass Native students, discipline Native students more frequently and harshly than their white peers, and deny Native students critical academic and extra-curricular opportunities. This multi-layered discrimination has pushed many Native students out of school entirely. The District also has discriminatory hiring practices and fails to connect with Native students and their families.
“As Native youth, we want - and deserve - what every other youth wants,” said Ruth Fourstar, a senior at Wolf Point High School. “We want access to a meaningful education, to be treated equally, and for our culture to be recognized and respected. Education is a tool for us to show our strength and wisdom. I hope that the OCR investigation will help all the youth in our community benefit from the education system.”
Federal data shows that Native students in the Wolf Point School District are more than twice as likely to receive in- and out-of-school suspensions than white students. The discriminatory practices adversely impact the academic performance of Native students. For instance, 94 percent of Native students at Wolf Point High School are below proficiency in reading, compared to 49 percent of white students.
“This discrimination is harming a whole generation of Native youth,” said Caitlin Borgmann, Executive Director with the ACLU of Montana. “It’s wrong to deprive these children of the education they deserve, and it’s heartbreaking to see the hurt that it’s causing children and their families. It’s past time to ensure that Native communities see justice.”
The Fort Peck Indian Reservation, like many others, is trying to heal from a history of discrimination and racism. For generations, assimilationist boarding schools strategically and violently suppressed Native culture, language, and Native children. Furthermore, the land on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation was opened to homesteading by white settlers who in turn took preferential reservation land allotments. Today, although most of the reservation’s 10,000 residents are Native, a small population of white residents control the Wolf Point municipal government, local economy, and school board.
After conducting interviews with students and parents and reviewing data and other sources of information, the OCR is expected to issue a final report in the summer or fall of 2019. If the report finds that there are Title VI violations, the District will be required to undertake certain actions to come into compliance with the Civil Rights Act.