School District Sued for Cheating Native Voters

Plaintiffs and ACLU attorneys
This article appeared on Indian Country Media Network in 2013. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

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 of the lawsuit; below is an article about what happened, which also appeared on Indian Country Media Network.]

Wolf Point, Montana
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.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo at top courtesy Richard Peterson; photo of Wolf Point courtesy Melina Healey. These articles were written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.

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