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Serving Indian Students: What Must Cass Lake Do?
By Catherine Winter
May 21, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

A small school district on the Leech Lake Indian reservation has struggled with racial tension for years. In the 1970s, many Indian parents were so unhappy with the Cass Lake-Bena schools that they pulled their children out and formed a new, Indian school. Five years ago, a group of Indian parents and community members filed a complaint against the Cass Lake-Bena district with the US Department of Justice, saying their children were unfairly steered away from college prep classes and weren't getting the language help they needed. The Department of Justice found that the district had violated the children's civil rights. The district is trying to serve its native students better, but the case is still not settled.

CASS COUNTY, IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA, is one of the poorest places in the state. Nearly 30% of the children live in homes with incomes below the poverty level. More than half the Indian children live in poverty. Steven Hirsch, a lawyer with Anishanabe Legal Services, says those children also face discrimination. He says Indian people in the Cass Lake and Bemidji areas face racism when they look for housing or work, when they shop or eat in restaurants - and when they go to school.

Hirsch: The school district hasn't created this problem. What goes on is reflective of the larger community. And no one can deny the existence of serious racial problems in the community.
Five years ago, Hirsch helped a group of Indian parents and community members file a complaint against the Cass Lake-Bena school district with the US Department of Justice.
Hirsch: Our complaint was based entirely on the district's own statistics. By any measure of student achievement and performance, Indian students were underperforming.
Those statistics showed that even though a majority of the students in the district are Indian, most of the students in college prep classes and extracurriculars such as mock trial or speech were non-Indian. And Indian children were more likely to be disciplined. A few miles outside town, Feather Eagle Rock wipes the kitchen table in her trailer. Eagle Rock used to work with children who had behavior problems in the school district.
Eagle Rock: Discipline was different. There was less tolerance for the behaviors of the darker-skinned students. Particularly some families are targeted as problem families and those students - everything they do is just watched.
On the day we spoke, Eagle Rock's 12-year-old grandson James was home from school, suspended. He helped his grandfather work on the roof for a while, then sat in the kitchen, using markers to write his name in fancy calligraphy. James recently came to Cass Lake from Utah, where he also had trouble in school. He and his grandparents acknowledge he misbehaves and has trouble controlling his temper. But James also believes he gets grief because he's Indian. He says the white students tease Indian kids and call them "savs" or "savages." James wishes he could go to boarding school.
James: The boarding school my cousin went to is all Indian.
Winter (reporter): Is that better?
James: Yeah.
Winter (reporter):Why?
Winter (reporter): There's nobody to tease you about who you are. Or what you are.
James' grandmother was a member of the group that filed the complaint with the Department of Justice, and she's not very excited about the result of that effort.
Eagle Rock: I don't know if government intervention ever does anything more than cause problems. But that comes from a Cherokee who knows how the government helps tribes.
The Department of Justice investigated the complaints, but it took three years before it found that the school district was violating civil rights laws. And when it made that finding, it didn't deal with the question of discipline. Instead, it said the district needed to do more to help Indian students who didn't speak English well enough. Superintendent Mary Helen Pelton says English is the first language of most students in the district, but the Justice Department found that Indian children's English was influenced by tribal languages.
Pelton: They said our children come to school without language skills students in America might have. Their language is ancestrally based, and it's called a creole, so they never can keep up or catch up.
Dr. Pelton inherited this problem; she was hired after the Justice Department began investigating the district. Even before the government's finding, Pelton says the schools were planning to introduce a program to help students with limited English proficiency. Studies show that poor children tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies than other students, and their language skills never catch up. Pelton says the district has poured resources into early education and started a program to help struggling readers while they're still young.
Diane Wahl: I'm going to give you some letters and see if you can make the word "She."
Teacher Diane Wahl gives magnetic letters to a first grader named Brittany as part of a program called "reading recovery". Wahl works with Brittany one-on-one, and she says the little girl's reading is improving. Brittany tackles a little book about a girl and her garden.
Brittany: Sally looked for the beans day after day. "Come up beans," said Sally. "Come up beans. Where are you?"
Language seems to have been the major concern for the Justice Department, but Superintendent Pelton acknowledges it was not the first thing on the minds of parents who made the complaint. Those parents were unhappy because Indian kids were more likely to be disciplined than non-Indians, and less likely to do well academically. Pelton hopes boosting kids skills early will help solve those other problems in the future.
Pelton: We've done wonderful work, ...hope that by having them learn to read early on then the whole issue of being frustrated and acting out will disappear.
Pelton says she's also trying to hire more Native American faculty and staff. Although most of the students in the district are Indian, most of the teachers are white.
Pelton: We have really tried hard. I think even if you go to Bugonigeshig School, tribal school, they too have trouble recruiting Native American faculty.
Pelton says she hopes to develop a partnership with Bemidji State University to train more Indian teachers. She says the district has hired more Indian classroom aides - and an Indian administrator. During lunch hour at the high school, Jim Chase comes bustling in after spending the morning at the grade school. Chase is one of the Indian parents who originally filed the complaint against the district. Now, the district has hired him to be dean of students. Now he is responsible for disciplining students grades seven through nine. Chase says he thinks discipline was discriminatory a few years ago, but he hopes it isn't now.
Chase: I've got both sides angry with some of the decisions I've made, Indian and non-Indian, so I must be doing something right.
Chase says things aren't as bad at the schools as some people say.
Chase: If you're expecting changes overnight, that won't happen. The environment here will need time to change and I think we're moving in the right direction.
But there's no way to know whether the district's efforts have been successful. The district used to compile statistics showing Indian participation in various activities; those statistics were the focus of the Justice Department's investigation. But no one has crunched those numbers in several years. Administrators say they don't know why not. There's no way to know whether the district's efforts will satisfy the Department of Justice, either. Normally, the Department negotiates a settlement when it finds someone has violated the Civil Rights Act. It's been five years, and the Justice Department still has not met with district officials to tell them what, exactly, to do.
Pelton: I feel like I'm in a college class and the professor says I'm going to give you a test tomorrow, but I'm not going to tell you what the test is on and I'm not going to teach you anything.
The Justice Department attorney handling the case referred questions to a public relations person, who said the Department can't comment on open cases.