A Pipeline to Prison—and Suicide—for Native Kids

This article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in December 2013.

A new legal paper on racial disparities in juvenile justice is laced with searing narratives of wrongs suffered by Native schoolchildren on Montana’s remote and windswept reservations. Law graduate Melina Healey’s study, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline Tragedy on Montana’s American Indian Reservations,” has just appeared in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change.

According to Healey (shown below), who got her NYU law degree this past May, the school-to-prison phenomenon has been well documented in poor, minority communities nationwide. However, it’s been generally ignored with respect to Montana’s reservations, where the problem is extreme. “I’m baffled by this,” she said in an interview. “It’s a staggering tragedy.”

Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project said the paper made a valuable contribution by focusing on a population that is frequently left out of the discussion. “Healey documents a confluence of factors that have harmful consequences for Indian children and lead to them being denied the most basic opportunities for educational achievement.”

Stuck in failing public schools in impoverished communities, Montana’s American Indian children face high rates of suspension, expulsion and arrest, with little regard for due process, Healey found. Being pushed out of school means separation from friends and positive routines and, for many youngsters, regular meals. This, in turn, drives not just trouble with the law but also some of the nation’s highest suicide rates, according to Healey. She recounts heartbreaking stories of Montana Native kids who killed themselves, or tried to, after being disciplined at school.

“Healey tells yet another sad story of our school systems failing to meet the needs of our youngest First Americans,” said former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, founder of the Center for Native American Youth, a policy group that advocates for the health, safety and well-being of Indian children. “Our federal government has a trust responsibility to provide these services to Native American children and the fact is, we simply must do better.”

Numerous forces push schools to eject troubled students rather than work with them and their families, Healey learned. These include zero-tolerance programs and the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes inferior schools financially without offering meaningful resources for improvement. As a result, schools want to get rid of those students who require the most help to meet NCLB’s testing criteria.

School programs throughout Montana use simple techniques like counseling and mentoring very successfully, Healey found. However, the projects are so small and so few, they have little effect on the larger picture. In a recent year, Healey’s data show, Montana’s Native youngsters were more likely than their white peers to be arrested. Despite a similar breakdown of misdemeanor and felony charges, Native children were two-and-one-half times more likely to be sent to adult court than white children and twice as likely to be imprisoned. Meanwhile, white youngsters were more likely to be diverted to alternative out-of-court programs.

Healey suggests innovative legal remedies, including federal and state constitutional challenges. Her ideas are based in theories that question the neutrality of our justice system and look at ways it leaves in place what she calls “the larger structural issues of resource and power inequality.” This maintains institutional racism, even when the individuals involved may not intend racial bias; to remedy this, courts must consider the larger narrative that surrounds a controversy, Healey says.

She offered a recent example. In October 2013, the Montana Supreme Court dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of Fort Peck Indian Reservation teen Dalton Gourneau. The widely admired athlete shot himself after being kicked off the local high school wrestling team; his mother, tribal councilwoman and judge Roxanne Gourneau, sued the school.

The court decided the school wasn’t liable because it couldn’t have foreseen that its actions would result in Dalton killing himself. “They got it all wrong,” said Healey. If the court had scrutinized the context of the teen’s action—including his passion for sports and Fort Peck’s numerous child suicides—it would have understood that dashing Dalton’s hopes made what he did entirely likely, according to Healey.

Healey concludes her paper: “Despair, prison and untimely death should not and need not be the ending places of public education for our most vulnerable children.”

ICTMN spoke to Healey, now a judicial clerk for a federal judge in Tennessee.

How did you end up in Montana, researching the school-to-prison pipeline?

I was doing advocacy work related to this issue in New York City and wondered if similarities existed in rural areas. I’d worked in Montana as a wrangler and loved the state, so I contacted its ACLU chapter, which invited me to become a summer intern in 2011. I soon met Judge Gourneau, who introduced me to people at Fort Peck. All were eager to share their stories, and I felt very welcome.

You examine Montana as a whole, but scrutinize the town of Wolf Point in particular. How did that happen?

My research began with Freedom of Information Act requests for data from state agencies, so I could look for patterns. I also interviewed dozens of parents, tribal council members, public defenders, former teachers and others and heard deeply disturbing stories. These included Judge Gourneau’s account of her son’s suicide after being disciplined at Wolf Point High School. Eventually, I realized that Wolf Point, where many Fort Peck children attend public school, was the locus of some very bad patterns. In addition to great disparities between educational outcomes for white and American Indian children, there was the Indian child-suicide issue. This was all clearly related.

What was your impression of Wolf Point?

Initially, I was surprised to see a white enclave on an American Indian reservation, then realized how much white people benefit from the reservation, including jobs in the schools. They live in nice houses on top of a hill, while housing for American Indians is very different. Looking further, I saw how prominent school is in Fort Peck children’s lives and why expulsions and other disciplinary measures, applied unfairly, are devastating. Visiting Fort Peck and Wolf Point helped me understand.

What will help?

The school-to-prison pipeline and child suicides on American Indian reservations don’t get much attention or funds, so few are working on them. I hope bringing attention to these crises and to possible legal challenges will get people thinking.

Where do you see yourself eventually?

I’ll be working on the school-to-prison pipeline issue, as a public defender and as a representative of individual clients.

This story was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.


School District Sued for Cheating Native Voters

Plaintiffs and ACLU attorneys (photo by Richard Peterson)
This article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in September 2013.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Wolf Point School District, which has a predominantly Native student population, drawn from the surrounding Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in northeastern Montana. The suit argues that school board districts favor non-Native voters and should be redrawn.

Wolf Point is the largest community on the reservation and has a two-part school district. The predominantly non-Native portion, with 430 residents, elects three members to the eight-member school board of trustees. The 4,205 residents of the predominantly Native American portion—nearly 10 times as many people—elect five members. That means one board member from the mostly white area represents 143 residents, while board members from the mostly Native area each represent 841 people, according to the suit, Jackson et al v. Wolf Point School District.

This imbalance violates the one-person-one-vote principle, said plaintiffs’ co-counsel Jon Ellingson, of the Montana ACLU, shown above second from left with plaintiffs (from left) Bill Whitehead, Lanette Clark and Ron Jackson, along with Jim Taylor, Montana ACLU director. The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Great Falls, Montana, asks for enforcement of equal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, as well as by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The suit also invokes Section 3 of the VRA and asks the court to “bail in” the school district and subject it to Section 5 preclearance. If ordered to submit future redistricting plans and other election procedures to the court, the district would have to prove in each instance that its practices were not discriminatory, says the complaint.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the VRA’s Section 4 in June and sent an existing list of preclearing jurisdictions back to Congress for retooling, the high court left the rest of the law intact. That includes Section 3, which provides an alternate way to require specific jurisdictions to provide this type of accountability.

The unequal representation in Wolf Point has profound effects on students, who have few Native teachers, counselors and others to guide them and provide role models, according to Ellingson. “For 15 years, the school’s board of trustees and other authority figures have been almost exclusively white. The children see Native employees who are mostly support staff.” As a result, said Ellingson, the school does not promote Native children’s culture and aspirations.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office investigated the school, according to a Helana newspaper. This followed years of activism by Fort Peck tribal member Iris Allrunner and others and a report to the agency on a visit to the school by Indian-education advocate Christine Rose. The agency heard parent allegations ranging from overprescribing of Ritalin and use of a locked, padded isolation room for Indian students to sexual abuse and incidents of racially charged cruelty by white students and staff.

U.S. News & World Report 2013 education ratings show an underperforming school, with reading and math scores below the state average. Enrollment figures provided by the district data specialist for the school year 2012–13 show Native children making up a smaller proportion of the student body as they age: 72 percent of junior high students were Native, while just 48.8 percent of high school students were—a difference of just over 23 percent. Meanwhile, white children made up 10.7 percent of the junior high and 27.8 percent of the high school. The rest of the children were from other population groups or had been identified by their parents as being of two or more races.

A measure of the Wolf Point elite’s blind spot for Native concerns can be found in the history section of the town’s website. In the early 1900s, the area was little more than a railroad station and a collection of settlers who had “poured into” Montana for cheap Indian land, according to the site. The web page continues: “Only one more thing was needed. Wolf Point was on an Indian reservation—a huge reservation with very few Indians…In the early summer of 1914, the date everyone was waiting for arrived—the official opening of the Fort Peck Reservation to homesteading.

At press time, officials of the school district and board of trustees had not returned calls requesting comments on the issues the suit raises.

[The school subsequently moved for dismissal; here’s what happened in late November 2014; again, this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network.]


Wolf Point, Montana (photo by Melina Healey)
A U.S. magistrate judge has declined to dismiss a voting-rights lawsuit filed by Fort Peck Indian Reservation parents and the American Civil Liberties Union against the Wolf Point Schools Board of Trustees. The federal suit, which claims the school board’s voting districts favor non-Native voters, may be moving toward mediation, according to both plaintiffs’ attorney Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and defendants’ attorney Tony Koenig, of the Montana School Boards Association.

“One option that might be discussed is redistricting. Another might be eliminating some board positions from the district that is seen as over-represented,” said Koenig.

Wolf Point is the largest community on the Fort Peck reservation, in northeastern Montana. Currently, each school board member from the predominantly non-Native part of town represents 143 people, while members from the predominantly Native area each represent 841 people. The non-Native area is over-represented, violating both the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to the plaintiffs.

For years, Fort Peck tribal members have said they want more involvement in the Wolf Point schools so they can help remedy long-standing problems affecting their children, including poor academics, excessive discipline, lack of Native teachers and role models, a low graduation rate and even more extreme outcomes, including suicide and incarceration via what is described as a school-to-prison pipeline.

In asking Judge Keith Strong to dismiss the suit, the school district claimed it couldn’t be a voting-rights defendant because it doesn’t register voters, as a county does. It also claimed that intent to discriminate had to be shown to prove a Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection claim. Strong disagreed, said Koenig: “He ruled against us on both points.”

“This was a very positive outcome for us,” said McDonald, a renowned civil-rights lawyer and attorney for numerous landmark Native voting-rights suits, including one against another Montana school district in 1983.

During a pretrial conference in Great Falls, Montana, Judge Strong also added the County Superintendant of Schools to the original list of defendants, who are school-board members and the school district’s election administrator, all sued in their official capacities. Koenig said he’ll get together with the county attorney, who will represent the superintendant, to discuss mediation.

“We’ll look for ways to find a resolution without going through the expense of a trial,” Koenig said. He explained that the county attorney is on staff, so defending the superintendant is part of the job, but the school board must rely on taxpayers to foot its legal bills. “The school board’s insurance does not cover this sort of lawsuit.”

If mediation isn’t successful?  “We’ll go through the whole process,” said Koenig.

Judge Strong has set March 10, 2014, as the date of the trial, should it be required.


These articles were written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.