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Crow Creek: Unsafe schools

Imagine rodents and snakes dropping in for classroom activities with elementary students, rain drops on desks unimpaired by a roof, no running water in a science lab and attending school in a fire trap.

Most school systems would hold an election to approve a bond issue to build a new school; not on the Crow Creek Reservation where the BIA holds title to the buildings and there is no money to repair or rebuild them.

The Crow Creek High School building, located just north of Fort Thompson, the largest town on the reservation, has a frame structure attached to the outside walls with building long rods. When the rods are tightened they keep the outside walls from collapsing.

The elementary school located in Fort Thompson is completely unsafe and the state fire marshal gave the school 90 days to upgrade the school to meet fire code. If the school had been a public school off the reservation it would have been shut down the day of the inspection. Should a fire start in the kitchen, the fire alarms and the sprinkler system would not work. The electrical portion has been bypassed to provide power to other parts of the building.

Elementary and high school students are exposed to black mold and asbestos daily. Asbestos dust seeps onto the floor and elementary school children play with it, officials said.

The elementary office staff has become very creative and placed bulletin boards, calendars and book shelves over the emerging cracks. It becomes a full time job, a secretary said.

The need for new school facilities for Crow Creek has reached the critical stage. It is not a "wouldn't it be nice" discussion any more. It is a crisis.

"We have asked for money, the BIA says there is none. We asked to have the gymnasium replaced. It will cost $2.5 million, the BIA said they have $1.5 million or less," said Duane Big Eagle, Crow Creek Sioux Tribal chairman.

The tribe can't come up with the money. Big Eagle said the tribe is $20 million in debt and the total price tag to put the 650 students of the Crow Creek reservation in new facilities would cost an estimated $30 - $40 million. With a new dormitory it would cost $50 million. The majority of students that attend Crow Creek are from that reservation, but some students from each of the other South Dakota reservations attend the school and stay in the dormitory.

The school was built by the Catholic Church and operated as Stephan Mission for many years until the buildings were donated to the tribe in the 1970s. The federal government holds the property in trust. A local board of education manages the school.

The gymnasium on the high school campus, is not only the location where the basketball teams practice and hold games, it's used during after-school hours for activities for students, for physical education, social activities, dances, graduations, ceremonies and community events. But no longer.

The BIA engineers have limited the number of people that can use the building to 35 at any given time. The outer walls will collapse, should a large crowd attend a game.

"As Bush signed the No Child Left Behind bill, he cut BIA education by $61 million to pay for his war in Iraq at $1 billion a week," Big Eagle said.

Two separate engineer's opinions, one authorized by the BIA, the other by the school system, came up with similar results, but different conclusions. The BIA said the high school could be repaired, engineers for the school said no, that it was 98 percent unsafe.

A middle school on the campus was replaced two years ago with temporary modular buildings. The old building was razed after condemnation. The high school uses the modular buildings for computer labs, because the high school building does not have an adequate electrical system for a large number of computers.

Students who drink the regular water become ill. A water pipeline was constructed to pipe water from Fort Thompson to Stephan, some 14 miles, so the students could have clean water. That project was funded in part by $400,000 from the Mdewakanton Dakota Tribe of Shakopee, Minn. and matching funds of $800,000 from the USDA.

There are many days during the school year when school is either let out early or called off because of sewer backup, broken water pipes or other problems that become catastrophes.

Teachers said it is not an environment that promotes good learning habits. But it seems the dedication of the staff has overcome some adversity caused by decaying buildings.

"I think we pull together and use what we have. We give the students everything possible," said Scott Raue, superintendent.

He said on national scores the school has made progress, in spite of the facilities. "It has a lot to do with the staff."

Whether or not the high school and elementary buildings will be replaced depends on the BIA, "and what they think our needs are," Raue said. At one time Crow Creek was on top of the BIA building replacement list, now it doesn't appear on a list of 41 schools.

Big Eagle is not at all optimistic about the school opening next fall. He said the students are not stupid and will eventually want to attend school elsewhere. Each time a student leaves the district loses money and eventually there will not be enough to open what schools Crow Creek has, he said.

The surrounding schools also cannot handle a large influx of students from the Crow Creek District.

Big Eagle said the state does not have a requirement to bus high school students and many parents do not have the income to transport them to the surrounding schools.

Past racial tensions in many of the predominantly non-Indian schools could also lead to problems for all students, parents said.

Buffalo County, which encompasses the Crow Creek Reservation is the poorest county in the United States, measured by per capita income and growth in that number.

Big Eagle has taken this problem seriously and made it personal. While he and his wife traveled to Albuquerque, N.M. to visit a relative he discovered the BIA managers were meeting in Santa Fe, N.M. He went to the meeting and was told there was no money. It was then he decided to take the problem to a higher level. He pointed his vehicle toward Washington, D.C. to speak with senators and staff.

"We have strong support from (Sen. Tom) Daschle, D-S.D., but not in Congress. Sen. Ben Campbell, R-Colo., is leading the attack on the 2004 budget. The BIA just got its appropriations a month ago and there are 41 new schools, mostly in the Southwest. The Southwest is becoming a BIA retirement community, nobody wants to retire here. I want to see something good happen here," Big Eagle said.