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Heartbreaking Tales From Kids: White House Calls for Action

The Department of Education has released a report centered on bullying, school discipline, and the use of racist imagery after its Listening Tour.
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The U.S. Department of Education has released a report on its nine-stop coast-to-coast School Environment Listening Tour conducted by the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights last fall. The listening tour was the first ever specifically geared to hearing what American Indian and Alaska Native students had to say about their schools.

The first challenge was to get the kids to say anything at all, White House Initiative Executive Director William Mendoza tells ICTMN. “We wanted to be able to bring those students into a conversation that is both empowering and meaningful,” he says. “But there was such a sterile environment at our very first listening session out in Wisconsin that for the next one we had to get rid of the suits. [We moved from the stage] down to the students’ level. We had to have elders come out and tell students, ‘We need you to talk about these issues with these people who want to better serve you.’”

The kids were sometimes heartbreakingly frank in their comments. One student from Los Angeles talked about bullying, which in this case extended beyond his classmates: “I’ve seen people be [beaten] and jumped. During my first few weeks in high school, there were a lot of fights. I’ve been told Natives are weak and dumb and no one likes them. One time, I went to the restroom [and] I got hit and beat up and got suspended and kicked off the basketball team. The principal said, ‘Natives love starting fights.’”

The federal officials heard from students, parents, school personnel and the community. The Education Department has compiled their recommendations and presented them in this report.

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Mendoza says the report is centered on bullying, school discipline, and the use of racist imagery such as mascots and logos. But many factors contribute to the pervasiveness of these problems, including a lack of detailed racial and ethnic data, cultural incompetence on the part of school personnel, and a hesitancy on the part of victims to file federal civil rights complaints, based largely on lack of knowledge of how to do that.

Mendoza stresses that this report is not a detailed plan of action, but a call to action. “This is shared responsibility between federal, tribal, state and local concerns. A multi-tiered strategy needs to take place. We’re calling on education leaders to engage with Native students and to use this report as a catalyst for starting those conversations that we know will play out in very diverse ways across the 567 nations.”

A lot of this work has already begun, says Mendoza, and more is planned, including regional summits, webinars and other outreach efforts conducted with the federal government’s strategic partners, among them NCAI, NARF, and the Center for Native American Youth.

Mendoza announced the report at the National Indian Education Association’s annual convention in Portland, Oregon on October 15.