‘I feel invisible’: Native students languish in public schools
Often ignored in the national conversation about the public school achievement gap, Native American students post some of the worst academic outcomes of any demographic group.
– The faint scars on Ruth Fourstar’s arms testify to a difficult life on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation: the physical and emotional abuse at home, the bullying at school, the self-harm that sent her rotating through mental health facilities and plunged her to a remedial program from the honor roll.
A diploma from Wolf Point High School could be a ticket out of this isolated prairie town in eastern Montana. Instead, Fourstar, 17, sees her school as a dead end.
The tutoring she was promised to get her back on track did not materialize. An agreement with the high school principal to let her apply credits earned in summer courses toward graduation fell through, Fourstar said. The special education plan that the school district developed for her, supposedly to help her catch up, instead laid out how she should be disciplined.
Her family fears that she will inflict the pain of not graduating on herself.
“I’m just there,” 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 2013-14 school year. Only half of Wolf Point’s Native students graduate from high school, compared with about three-quarters of their white peers.
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.
“The discrimination is so ingrained that people think that’s just the way things are,” said Melina Healey, the lawyer representing the tribal board on the complaint.
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.
Slurs on the court
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 district not only demonstrates indifference to but actually inflames Native students’ vulnerability to self-harm,” the tribes’ civil-rights complaint states.
Rob Osborne, who has been the superintendent of Wolf Point’s school district for 2 1/2 years, said he has read the board’s complaint three times but is not familiar enough with its contents to comment. He sees no purpose in comparing how the district treats Native and white students.
“I’m not going to get into this Native American thing,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is make sure all our kids have a quality education. And is there some discontent up there? Yeah, probably.”
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.”
“Wolf Point Schools works constantly to address the challenges facing our students and, in particular, our indigenous students,” she said. “Our district is aware of historical issues in our nation and as educators do everything in our power to address them.”
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.
After President Barack Obama visited with students in June 2014 on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas, a report from his administration called for remedies to a “long history” of “deeply troubling and destructive federal policies.”
The report stated that “the specific struggles that Native youth face often go unmentioned in our nation’s discussions about America’s children, and that has to change.”
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, Alaska, 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.’ ”
“I think the sensitivity to different cultures, sometimes it ends with Native people,” said Ron Lessard, who has been acting executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education since 2017.
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 functioninglibrary and adequate textbooks, and provided inadequate special education services. Because of “excessive exclusionary discipline,” somestudents barely attend classes.
But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos 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.
Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that DeVos was “keenly aware” of the challenges facing Native students and has been aggressive in holding federal schools accountable for improving their education. In March, the 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.
“The Obama administration produced several reports and blueprints on Indian education reform, but very little changed under their watch,” Hill said.
In 1886, Washington designated Fort Peck, a remote area now composed of 2 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, interim executivedirector of the National Indian Education Association, an advocacy organization.
‘Getting rid of Indian kids’
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, 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.
’Broken promises — that’s all you get from the school’
Last August, in a steamy yellow school bus turned food truck, Albert Schafer prepared burgers, hot dogs and fry bread for hungry customers at Wolf Point’s Wadopana celebration, one of the oldest traditional powwows in Montana. The four-day festival draws hundreds of Native families bedecked in traditional dancing costumes to a pavilion where they sing and drum into the night.
Schafer, 32, dropped out of Wolf Point High School, feeling warehoused in a classroom for students with special needs. “It seemed like I was wasting their time, and they didn’t want to teach me what I needed,” he said, adding that his daughter Claudia Schafer helps him read and write.
Claudia Schafer also struggled at Wolf Point High School. Last year, she transferred to a school about 20 miles away in Poplar, Montana, where nearly all of the students are Native.
Like the Schafers, multiple generations of Native families have floundered in Wolf Point’s schools.
Fourstar’s grandmother, Louella Contreras, dropped out of a Wolf Point school in ninth grade. She went on to earn her high school equivalency diploma and a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. For about 15 years, she has worked for the Fort Peck Housing Authority.
Contreras’ second job has been advocating support services for her two grandchildren. She became their guardian after taking them from an abusive household eight years ago.
Ineighth and ninth grade, Fourstar was hospitalized four times for post-traumatic stress. She was also cutting herself. Her grades plummeted to F’s and D’s, after being high enough to earn her a spot on the honor roll. At the end of eighth grade, as she recovered in a treatment center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Contreras begged school officials for accommodations to help her granddaughter when she returned. Fourstar never got the help she was promised, her family said, and still struggles in classes.
“Broken promises — that’s all you get from the school,” Fourstar said.
One year after Contreras requested it, the school drafted a formal education plan that was supposed to help Fourstar academically. Instead, it set out disciplinary procedures for slow learning. Its solution: Fourstar would have “approximately five minutes to make a choice” on tasks and questions or face an in-school suspension.
“Ruth has come a long way,” Contreras said, “and it’s not because of the school.”
When reached by phone, the principal of Wolf Point High School, Kim Hanks, referred questions to the superintendent. Lervick, the lawyer representing the school, declined to comment on the principal’s actions.
One of the few places where Fourstar has flourished at the high school is the Opportunity Learning Center, an “alternative” program with more than 50 students — about 95 percent of them Native. They spend a couple of periods to most of the school day there.
Cookie Ragland, the program’s director and only full-time staff member, is white and grew up just west of the reservation. She has devoted her career to students who “don’t fit into mainstream, traditional educational classrooms” and was drawn to Wolf Point in 2003 because it had the only alternative program in northeastern Montana.
She soon found that the program “was designed to punish those students that didn’t comply with the rules of traditional education,” she said.
“They should be given other choices before they get to me,” Ragland added.
She said the town used Wolf Point’s official dogcatcher and his van to take students with behavioral problems home, a practice that has since ended.
For her classroom, Ragland procured a refrigerator, which she stocked with sandwich supplies, and a washer and dryer for students who did not have homes. She allowed Native students to earn a biology credit for going fishing and bringing back their catch to dissect.She spurned worksheets and encouraged students to do research papers on topics that interested them.
In recent years, though, the school administration has given Ragland “little financial or other support,” according to the tribal board’s complaint. It has ordered her to stop developing Native-centered curricula and taking students on field trips. At one point, it required learning center students to enter the school through a back door.
Because she considers the school “toxic,” she said, she encourages some Native students to take a nontraditional path to graduation, such as a training program called Job Corps or the Montana Youth Challenge Academy.
Ragland’s approach has been criticized by parents who say that steering students toward outside programs can set them back even further, and by some Native students who say Ragland appears to have lower expectations for them.
“I’m not saying I’m a miracle worker,” she said. “I’ve lost students, and there are students that aren’t happy with me. I try to be consistent and fair, but I’m not perfect.”
Native hopelessness and a tragic solution: Teen suicide
Despair can be deadly.
Jayden Joe, a once-gregarious honor roll student who devoured math workbooks and dreamed of becoming a teacher, began to withdraw from friends after his father died from liver cancer in August 2010. Joe had prayed every night for his father to receive a transplant; when it did not happen, he blamed himself. His grades at Wolf Point High School plummeted, and he was steered into Ragland’s remedial program.
“My son was pushed to the side,” said his mother, Michelle Barsness.
Like many Native parents on the reservation did with their own children, Barsness spoke with her son about suicide.
“That’s the chicken-shit way out, Mom,” she said Joe told her.
By the winter of his junior year, he seemed to be doing better. He had a steady job as a chef at local diner Old Town Grill. He had recently earned a $2 an hour raise, and had saved $700 toward a used Chevrolet Monte Carlo. He planned to go to a culinary program in Arizona after graduation. But he struggled to stay on track at school.
When Angeline Cheek, an advocate for Native students in Wolf Point’s schools, saw his name on a tribal court list of truants in March 2017, she told the school’s guidance counselor that Joe needed immediate help. According to Cheek, the counselor said, “I’ll follow up on it if I have time. I have a lot of things I have to do.”
As the high school’s only guidance counselor, she was responsible for about 200 students. The counselor, who retired this past year, would not respond to questions by phone or email. The district declined to answer questions about her work.
Twenty-four hours later, in a heated hallway exchange, high school Principal Hanks reprimanded Joe for missing class and warned him that his graduating was in jeopardy.
Joe “was asking if he could do anything,” said a classmate, Ayanna Archdale. “He looked upset.”
A broad-shouldered 17-year-old with a mop of thick, dark brown hair, Joe walked home at lunchtime and took his mother’s truck to Borge Park, a teenage hangout 1 mile away from his school. He parked next to a baseball diamond, put the muzzle of a .22 rifle borrowed from his grandfather to his head, and pulled the trigger. Three of Joe’s friends found his body lying face down in the parking lot.
Barsness learned at a suicide awareness training session that teenagers typically kill themselves within a half-hour of deciding to do it.
“So half an hour before my son did it, where was he? He was at school,” she said.
Hanks later expressed concern that her scolding may have contributed to Joe’s death. After getting the news, she called Nadine Adams, mother of one of Joe’s best friends.
“I hope it’s not because of what I told him,” Hanks said, according to Adams. She urged Adams to keep an eye on her own daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, Adams said. Hanks did not respond to repeated email requests for comment about her conversations with Joe and Adams.
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.
His mother, Roxanne Gourneau, a former judge, sued the school district, contending that the school did not appropriately handle the hours leading up to his death. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the school district could not be held responsible for an “unforeseeable” suicide.
The district supported the court’s finding that connecting discipline at the school to her son’s death was “speculation.”
But Gourneau tried to help other teenagers. As a member of the tribal executive board, she helped create the position of liaison for Native students and secure $3.68 million in 2016 to expand mental health screening and to train community members to identify youths at risk for suicide.
Suicide remains a scourge.
During 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, 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 Gourneau helped establish, 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,” 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.
“I started to feel like the students,” she said.
Distraught after hearing about Joe’s death, Cheek asked the high school counselor if she had followed up on her urgent request to check in on him. She had not, Cheek said. About a week later, Superintendent Osborne banned Cheek from the district’s schools.
In a complaint to the tribe’s education director, Osborne wrote that Cheek had a “negative attitude towards our school district, staff, putting parents and school district against each other and critical of how the district handled the tragic loss of one of our students without knowing all the facts.”
The education director fired her, accusing 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, Cheek said.
“History is repeating itself,” she said.
Osborne referred questions to Lervick, who declined to say whether Cheek’s ouster was related to Joe’s suicide.
Over her grandmother’s objections, Fourstar wants to complete her high school education at a Native boarding school in Oregon. She sees the faraway school as the only way out of Wolf Point and the issues plaguing her community.
She wants to study psychology to help Native children overcome similar challenges.
“I feel like I have to get away from here to see what I can do,” Fourstar said.
To Contreras, boarding schools are a symbol of the government’s long campaign to eradicate Native culture. She wants her granddaughter to achieve what she did not: a diploma from Wolf Point High School.
For that to happen, she realized, the school must pay more attention to Native students. Unwilling to wait for a federal response to the tribes’ complaint, Contreras filed a separate complaint with the Education Department on her granddaughter’s behalf in October 2017, prompting the department to open an investigation into the school’s treatment of Fourstar.
“I do not want my granddaughter to be another suicide statistic,” she wrote.