RAPID CITY, S.D. - Seventeen-year-old Zack Eagle Hawk will not return to
school in Winner, S.D. He has had too many suspensions, court appearances
and racially motivated harassments to allow continued learning in the
Eagle Hawk moved with his mother from Indiana to Winner in 2003. Prior to
that time he had never been in trouble at school; in fact, he loved math
and reading mysteries, dramas and sports autobiographies.
But once in Winner, he was suspended for drawing a medicine wheel and
writing "Native Pride" in his notebook - symbols of gang activity, the
school administration said. Law enforcement authorities in Winner said
there was no gang activity in the small border town, which abuts the
Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
In January, Eagle Hawk, while in a physical education class overheard one
white student say, "I guess it is time to throw rocks at greasy Indians."
The boy admitted he said that to Eagle Hawk and called him a dirty Indian.
Eagle Hawk was suspended for harassment.
Eagle Hawk's adversary also used racial slurs and curse words. School
records do not show Eagle Hawk's harasser was ever punished.
At a press conference, Eagle Hawk said the students at Winner kept
insisting he was a member of a Rapid City gang. Eagle Hawk said he had
never been in Rapid City until the day of the press conference. Rapid City
is 220 miles from Winner.
The Rosebud Tribal Council teamed up with the American Civil Liberties
Union to file a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of
14 American Indian families. The complaint asks that an investigation,
which in 1997 revealed misconduct against the American Indian students in
the middle and high schools, be reopened on the Winner School District. An
agreement was worked out in 2000, and by 2004 the Education Department was
satisfied the district had solved the problems and closed the case. The
complainants want the case reopened.
The school asserts that there is no difference in the discipline policy for
non-Indian and American Indian students and stands by the report it gave
the Department of Education.
The ACLU investigation turned up evidence that - in practice - there is a
major difference. Most of the data collected by the ACLU came from school
and court records.
The American Indian student population in middle and high school is 25
percent. The out-of-school suspension rate for American Indian students is
59 percent and in-school suspension is at 85 percent.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, the Rosebud Department of Education and
the ACLU charge that the Winner School District manipulated its records to
present the Office of Civil Rights with a grossly distorted picture of its
disciplinary practice and racial relations.
"Through its discriminatory practices, the Winner School District
systematically pushes Native American children out of its schools, often
into the juvenile justice system.
"To permit Winner Schools to remain above the law will encourage other
school districts to engage in the same illegal activities with the same
impunity," said Robin Dahlberg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU.
School officials declined requests for comment.
The problems found in Winner are part of a national trend toward get-tough
policies on school misconduct, the ACLU stated. That policy leads to
increased suspensions for trivial conduct and the use of law enforcement to
handle minor school discipline.
"We found that the Winner School District is systematically forcing Indian
children out; forcing them to go to school elsewhere, far from home;
forcing them to drop out and increasingly forcing them to juvenile
detention facilities," said Catherine Kim, attorney for the ACLU.
She said that one-quarter of the students in the middle and high school are
American Indian, but only two graduated from high school in the last year
the statistics are available.
The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to stop that practice, but
educators said it is encouraging more suspensions to keep the students with
higher test scores in class while turning out the lower-achieving students.
Jennifer Ring, executive director for the ACLU of the Dakotas, said Winner
is not the only border town accused of racial harassment with discipline.
She said complaints come to her office from larger cities and smaller
towns, mostly bordering the reservation.
More and more children are leaving school with criminal records instead of
high school diplomas, Kim said. A number of problems in Winner point to the
misuse of the school board's gang policy, which defines gang activity as a
group of individuals involved in two or more felonies or misdemeanors.
"When a Native American kid writes 'Native Pride' in his notebook or draws
pictures of coyotes or peace pipes, this rule punishes them for
gang-related activity and sends them to the authorities," Kim said.
Another complaint about Winner is that Caucasian students harass American
Indian students and school officials do nothing to stop the activity. "If a
Native American kid fights back, though, he is taken away by police and is
prosecuted for assault."
Rodney Bordeaux, tribal council member and chairman of the education
committee, said when children are harassed every day they get tired of it.
They just want to go home to their families and be happy, and get up the
next morning and go to school. If they can't, he said, it affects their
"We want our children to have the best education opportunities possible,
but if public schools maintain a hostile environment, our children will
only suffer," Bordeaux said.
Boarding schools in the state are an option for these students, but they
are located hundreds of miles away from home. St. Francis School on the
Rosebud Reservation arranged to send a bus to Winner to pick up the
students and take them to school, but the students have to get up as early
as 4 a.m.
The Todd County school system on the Rosebud Reservation is 90 percent
American Indian and has a dormitory. Many students come from Winner to
attend school at Todd County, but the dormitory is not large enough.
Cindy Young, director of education for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said the
tribe is working toward increasing the dormitory space at Todd County as
well as the number of buses to bring children to the Rosebud.
She said attempts to put an American Indian on the board of education have
met with strong resistance. For any changes to occur, she said, there has
to be community awareness. But, racial tensions have taken place for
generations in the border towns in the Great Plains. Many adults remember
the same treatment in Winner or other border town schools more then 30
"The ACLU has received so many complaints over the years about mistreatment
of Native American students in school districts across South Dakota that we
see this as a problem that cannot be ignored.
"The government can no longer allow Native Americans to be treated as
second-class citizens," Ring said.