In Montana, Native American students face persistent racial discrimination, and it’s killing them

Native youth send message of distress on their reservation
Native American students face dire circumstances in our nation’s public schools.

Native American youth and their education are in a state of crisis. Native students face widespread marginalization and isolation in schools, leading to some of the worse academic outcomes of any demographic group in the country. And among teens and young adults ages 18-24, Native Americans have the highest suicide rate in the country. This is precisely why the Obama administration declared them in a “state of emergency” in 2014. 

In the Wolf Point, Montana, school district on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the situation is even more dire. At Wolf Point High School, white students, who represent a minority of the student population, are more likely to take Advanced Placement courses and to graduate. Meanwhile, Native students are more likely to be suspended and less likely to be proficient in reading and math, according to a recent investigation by ProPublica and the New York TimesTo counter this, back in June 2017 the Tribal Executive Board of Fort Peck filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. The complaint asked the department to investigate discrimination against Native students, noting that, “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 complaint focuses on the myriad ways that Native students at Wolf Point are discriminated against. There are specific examples of racial slurs used by coaches in front of students, referring to them as “dirty” and “prairie Indians,” as well as instances of Native female students being dropped from sports teams after having babies, “while white students were not, an apparent violation of federal law.” 

The complaint also points out that the school’s Native students have been driven to suicide after being neglected and dismissed by school administrators. In the spring of 2017, it notes, a junior killed himself during school hours just after the school principal had reprimanded him for his lack of attendance. 

Indifference, loneliness, and isolation create a toxic brew for vulnerable teenagers, who are already marginalized in society. And administrators seem completely uninterested in addressing the systemic racism that has been so pervasive in the Wolf Point school district. The school system superintendent, Rob Osborne, responded to the complaint by saying that “he sees no purpose in comparing how the district treats Native and white students,” saying, “I’m not going to get into this Native American thing. 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.”

Based on his comments, it doesn’t appear that Osborne has any empathy toward or commitment to the Native American students in his school district, who are struggling to the point of dropping out and suicide. What’s even more damning is that the very office in the Education Department (the Office of Civil Rights) with which the discrimination complaint was filed has been radically transformed under the Trump Administration—and not for the better.

Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ leadership, more than 1,200 investigations into discrimination claims in schools have been dismissed, even when they included serious civil rights violations. DeVos has also rescinded key Obama-era guidance on school discipline, which overwhelmingly impacts black and brown students. This is not an administration that cares anything about mitigating the impacts of systemic racism for students of color, or civil rights, or improving outcomes for Native American students (or any students, for that matter). This continues to leave Native students across the country at risk, notably those in the Wolf Point school district.

Sadly, none of this is new. There is a long history of the United States government using schools and education to perpetuate genocide among Native Americans. This is unacceptable, and cannot continue. Neglecting, berating, not investing in, and otherwise harming Native American students until they flunk out, drop out, or are driven to kill themselves should absolutely be a crime. However, since it’s not, we need to stop ignoring the plight of these students, work to hold school administrators accountable, and actively work, across racial lines, to demand justice and equity for Native American students. 

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