District of Despair: On a Montana Reservation, Schools Favor Whites Over Native Americans 

Tribes say that discrimination by the Wolf Point School District contributes to some of their youth dropping out, harming themselves or even committing suicide. But the Trump administration hasn’t acted on their complaint.

This article is a collaboration between ProPublica and The New York Times.

The faint scars on Ruth Fourstar’s arms testify to a difficult life on Fort Peck Indian Reservation — the physical and emotional abuse at home, the bullying at school, the self-harm that rotated her through mental health facilities and plunged her from the honor roll to a remedial program.

A diploma from Wolf Point High School could be the teenager’s ticket out of this isolated prairie town. Instead, she sees her school as a dead end.

The tutoring she was promised to get her back on track didn’t materialize. An agreement with the high school principal to let her apply credits earned in summer courses toward graduation fell through. 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,” the 17-year-old said. “I feel invisible.”

Ruth’s despondency is shared by Native students in Wolf Point and across the nation. Often ignored in the national conversation about the public school achievement gap, they post some of the worst academic outcomes of any demographic group, a disparity 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 youth, even suicide. Among people ages 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 in a “state of emergency.”

While the 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 just 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. At Wolf Point High School, 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 struggle academically: Only 65 percent of Native students 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 broken down by race from the 2013-14 school year. Just 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 U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights requesting a federal investigation into its 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 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 about 300 students, shunt struggling Native students into a poorly funded, understaffed program for remedial students and truants, often against their will.

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

In the most extreme cases, discouraged students have turned to suicide, the complaint states. Three months before it was filed, a Wolf Point junior took his life during school hours. The principal had just berated him 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,” stated the tribes’ civil rights complaint.

Rob Osborne, who has been the superintendent of Wolf Point’s school district for the past two and a half years, said he’s 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 Education Department said it is 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.”

Since passage of the Indian Education Act of 1972, Congress has tried to give tribes more resources and responsibility for educating their children. But most schools that serve Native youth 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 and programs on Native education, such as grants to strengthen partnerships between tribes, states and school districts. The new federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to consult with tribes about education plans.

After former President Barack Obama visited with students on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas in June 2014, a report from his administration called for remedies to a “long history” of “deeply troubling and destructive federal policies.”

The report stated, “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, the 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 Loleta Union Elementary School District in rural California. The investigation found that the school’s principal called Native students a “pack of wolves” and grabbed and hit them, and that Native students were denied special education services and received harsher discipline than whites. The school district agreed to reform 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, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The complaint said the school, run by the Interior Department’s 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 school, and mental health support for its severely at-risk population was insufficient.

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

Liz Hill, spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that DeVos is “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 it did not comply 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 swath now comprising 2 million acres of Montana’s northeastern plains, for 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 or 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 Wolf Point, a town of 3,000 on the northern bank of the Missouri River. In the main square, a bronze statue titled “Homage to the Pioneer” depicts a man on horseback, holding a cowboy hat over his heart.

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 and a supporter of the complaint, said that his Wolf Point school pegged him as an “instigator” in the 1960s after he questioned why Native students were seated in the back rows.

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

In August 2013, seven Native residents sued the Wolf Point School District, saying that political boundaries were carved to give the minority white voters outsized power. Seven months later, a consent decree was signed to remedy the district’s 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 American, 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.

Last August, in a steamy yellow school bus turned food truck, Albert Schafer prepared paper plates of burgers, hot dogs and fry bread for a line of hungry customers during Wolf Point’s Wadopana celebration, one of the oldest traditional powwows in Montana. The four-day festival draws hundreds of Native families to a pavilion where, bedecked in traditional dancing costumes, 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 between servings, adding that his daughter, Claudia, helps him read and write.

Claudia also struggled academically in Wolf Point High School and experienced bullying. Last year, her father transferred her to a school 20 miles away in Poplar, where nearly all of the students are Native American.

Like the Schafers, multiple generations of Native families have floundered in Wolf Point’s schools.

Ruth Fourstar’s grandmother, Contreras, dropped out of Wolf Point schools in ninth grade. She went on to earn her GED, 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.

Her second job has been advocating for support services for her two grandchildren. She became their guardian after taking them out of an abusive household eight years ago. In eighth and ninth grade, Ruth was hospitalized four times for post-traumatic stress. She was also cutting herself.

Ruth’s grades plummeted from the honor roll to F’s and D’s. At the end of eighth grade, as Ruth recovered in a treatment center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Contreras begged school officials for accommodations to help her granddaughter when she returned. She 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,” Ruth said.

One year after Contreras requested it, the school drafted a formal education plan that was supposed to help Ruth academically. Instead, it set out disciplinary procedures for slow learning. Ruth would have “approximately 5 minutes to make a choice” on tasks and questions or face an in-school suspension.

“Ruth has come a long way, and it’s not because of the school,” Contreras said. “If Ruth would get the help she needs, she’d be a good student.”

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 comment on the principal's actions.

One of the few places at the high school where Ruth has flourished is the Opportunity Learning Center, the “alternative” program with more than 50 students — about 95 percent of them Native American. They spend anywhere from 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 moved to Wolf Point in 2003 because it had the only alternative program in northeastern Montana.

She soon found that its alternative 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.”

She said the town deployed Wolf Point’s official dog catcher and his van to take students home for behavior issues, a practice that has since been ended.

Ragland procured a refrigerator for her classroom, which she stocked with sandwich supplies, and a washer and dryer for homeless students. 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 of their interest.

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 American-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 into outside programs can set them back even further, and Native students who say Ragland appears to have lower expectations for them.

“I’m not saying I’m a miracle worker,” Ragland 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.”

Despair can be deadly.

Once a gregarious, honor roll student who devoured arithmetic workbooks and dreamed of becoming a math teacher, Jayden Joe began to withdraw from friends after his father died from liver cancer in August 2010. Jayden had prayed every night for his father to receive a transplant; when it didn’t 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,” his mother, Michelle Barsness, said.

Like many Native parents on the reservation, Barsness spoke with Jayden about suicide.

“That’s the chickenshit way out, mom,” she said Jayden told her.

By the winter of his junior year, Jayden seemed to be doing better. He had a steady job as a chef at the local diner, the 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 in 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 Jayden 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 on the phone or by email. The district also declined to answer questions about her work.

Twenty-four hours later, in a heated hallway exchange, the high school principal, Hanks, reprimanded Jayden for missing class and warned him that his graduation was in jeopardy.

Jayden “was asking if he could do anything,” said his classmate, Ayanna Archdale. “He looked upset.”

A broad-shouldered 17-year-old with a mop of thick, dark brown hair, Jayden walked home at lunchtime and took his mother’s truck to Borge Park, a teenage hangout a mile away from his high 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 Jayden’s friends found his body lying face down in the parking lot.

Barsness learned at a suicide awareness training session that teenagers typically commit suicide within half an hour of deciding to kill themselves. “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 Jayden’s suicide. After getting the news, the principal called Nadine Adams, the mother of one of Jayden’s best friends. “I hope it’s not because of what I told him,” she 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 Jayden and Adams.

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

His mother, Roxanne Gourneau, a former judge and member of the Tribal Executive Board, 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 cannot be held responsible for an “unforeseeable” suicide. The district supported the court’s finding that it was “speculation” to link her son’s death to the school discipline.

Gourneau tried to help other teens. As a member of the Tribal Executive Board, she helped create the position of a liaison for Native students and secure $3.68 million in 2016 to train community members to identify youth at risk for suicide and expand mental health screening.

At the school, that has only gotten advocates so far. 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 has filled out the paperwork for several state grants to help her address the trauma of her Native students. But the high school principal and district superintendent didn’t have the time or interest to sign off on her proposals, which were “shelved,” she 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.”

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 had to also give rewards to white students. (She didn’t.) 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 Jayden’s death, Cheek asked the high school counselor if she had followed up on her urgent request to check in on him. She hadn’t, Cheek said. About a week later, the 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 her of disrespect to Wolf Point administrators.

The Wolf Point Parent Advocacy Group called for Cheek’s reinstatement. “Some of our kids would not be here today if it were not for her,” it wrote to the reservation’s education director — to no avail.

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.”

Osborne referred questions to Lervick, who declined to say whether Cheek’s ouster from the schools was related to the events surrounding Jayden’s suicide.

Over her grandmother’s objections, Ruth wants to leave Wolf Point and complete her high school education at a Native boarding school in Oregon. Ruth said she sees the faraway school as the only way out of Wolf Point and the suicide, drugs and alcohol that plague her community. She wants to study psychology and help other Native youth overcome similar challenges.

“I feel like I have to get away from here to see what I can do,” she said.

To Contreras, boarding schools symbolize the government’s long campaign to eradicate Native culture. And she wants her granddaughter to achieve what she didn’t: 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, she 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 Ruth.

“I do not want my granddaughter to be another suicide statistic,” she wrote to the federal office.

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