Civil rights lawyer looking at Ronan School District's treatment of Indian students

RONAN - Only 35 Indian students will graduate from public high schools on the Flathead Reservation this spring, and a total of 35 Indian students have dropped out of Ronan School District this year, a federal civil rights lawyer said Tuesday during a compliance visit to the Ronan School District.

"This is unacceptable. Something has to be done," David J. Dunbar, chief regional civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education in Denver, told a public meeting at Salish-Kootenai College.

Dunbar and two other staff attorneys are in Ronan all week interviewing students, administrators, parents, community members and others to see if the Ronan School District is complying with federal civil rights laws.

Dunbar said his agency enforces civil rights laws for the Department of Education relative to complaints of racial discrimination, disability discrimination, sex discrimination in sports, and other laws passed by Congress to prevent discrimination and ensure equal opportunity and civil rights in education. It's main sanction is the withholding of federal funds.

"We are here in Pablo and Ronan because we have information that Ronan School District may be engaging in activities that have a disparate effect on Native American students." he said. "We are open and available to anyone who has concerns."

Parents at the meeting expressed concerns that Ronan (and in one case, Polson) is indifferent to tribal children, ignores their good qualities and is quick to suspend or expel them from school for minor infractions.

"We have four generations that have experienced the pain of Ronan Middle School," one woman said. She said she and her children recently moved back to the Flathead Reservation from Great Falls. She said Great Falls public schools did much more to meet her children's needs. Teachers called to congratulate her children on a job well done, and to share that information with parents. "Mediators" within the school district helped traditional Indians, who often feel uncomfortable frankly discussing problems with authorities in the dominant culture, such as school administrators, about their children's problems. She has not found these services in Ronan.

"We get over here and things are going downhill," she said of the Flathead Reservation school.

"The more we speak up, the more our children get picked on," another Indian woman said.

Dunbar urged concerned parents and students who believe they have been targets of discriminatory action in the school district to get their facts in order, and lay them out in a rational way, because his agency cannot act on speculation, hearsay or mere suspicion or exasperation.

He was sympathetic to these parents, grandparents and others, and he and the other federal lawyers listened patiently, asking questions to elicit more information. But he did warn one man who was had become discursive.

"We are not here to bear the brunt of your exasperation with Ronan," Dunbar said.

Joyce Silverthorne, director of the Tribal Education Department of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, discussed the difficulty she and other concerned Indian parents and grandparents have had in getting cooperation from Ronan School District for an Indian policy and procedures document. The school district has not been responsive to the Indian Parents Committee until recently, she said.

"Your visit here is important because you have the ability to get people to listen. I know the school district doesn't do well by our kids," Silverthorne said.

Dunbar and his team of federal lawyers spent Monday morning in interviews with school Superintendent Donn Livoni and district administrators. In the afternoon, they visited Two Eagle River School for interviews. Two Eagle is the tribal alternative school where many American Indain students choose to enroll if they are suspended from Ronan, or have other difficulties in the Ronan School District.

On Tuesday, the lawyers interviewed sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in "focus group" settings, as well as teachers and staff from throughout the school district in separate sessions.

They plan on talking with high school students and counselors Thursday. Much of that day has been reserved to discuss issues brought to them by students parents and other individuals, Dunbar said. He urged concerned people to call Silverthorne, 675-2700, to arrange a time for private discussions.

About 12 people attended Tuesday's public session. No other public meetings in Ronan will be held by the Office of Civil Rights team before it leaves Friday.

Results of their compliance visit will be available in six to eight weeks, a spokesman in Washington told the Missoulian on Monday.

The compliance visit is cooperative, and was not the result of a specific complaint. The visit came about because of data submitted routinely to state and federal agencies by the school district relative to student discipline - statistics on suspensions and expulsions. The federal agency has not released the data that flagged the school district for review. But presumably it involves the number of Indian students suspended or expelled from the school district relative to other students.

The visit has a more general purpose, Dunbar said. It is a positive one.

"How can we work together to improve the educational environment that exists in Ronan," he said.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at jstromnes@missoulian.com.

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