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Lawsuit Against California Districts Allege Abuse of Native Students

At one Northern California high school, a teacher allegedly had students invent tribes and pretend to fight each other in a wildly inaccurate lesson.
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At one Northern California high school, a teacher allegedly had students invent different tribes and pretend to fight each other in a wildly inaccurate lesson about tribal conflicts that deeply disturbed a Yurok student.

At another high school, the principal allegedly referred to her Native American students as “a pack of wolves” and other derogatory terms, bopped children on the head with a clipboard and disproportionately expelled or suspended Native American students based on minor infractions.

These accounts were among the many harrowing allegations described in two federal lawsuits filed December 18 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California against two Humboldt County School Districts—Eureka City and Loleta Union—that accuse school officials of perpetuating systemic physical, emotional and sexual abuse of Native American and African-American students. The ACLU lawyers said the accounts from numerous Native American parents were reminiscent of American Indian boarding schools, where tribal children were beaten, sexually abused and often died of malnutrition in a government-funded effort to assimilate them.

Based on more than a year of research and school records acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests, the lawsuit alleges the school officials fostered a racially hostile environment that severely damaged the students’ mental health, and that the school committed civil rights violations by pushing Native American and African-American students out of college prep tracks and into continuation education programs at disproportionate rates.

“These were schools where students were being subjected regularly to racial slurs and sexual harassment, but nothing was being done,” said Linnea Nelson, Education Equity Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. “These adults are supposed to be providing a safe environment for them when they’re at an age when their identity and confidence is in flux.”

One African-American student was attending a Eureka City middle school, for instance, was repeatedly called a “nigger” by other students, the lawsuit alleges. They also spit on him and made monkey sounds at him, according to the lawsuit, but school staff never made any serious effort to stop the harassment, despite constant complains from his parents.

When he started missing school to avoid the students who were harassing him, the principal and a police officer threatened to come to his house and drag him to school rather than investigate the abuse, according to the lawsuit.

Similarly, the Yurok student at Eureka High was labeled a “habitual truant” because the school refused to give her excused absences for attending Yurok ceremonies, salmon fishing and cultural activities, the lawsuit alleges.

“This lawsuit was really a last resort,” Nelson said. “It’s been striking that so many parents we’ve talked to have been complaining for years with no results. They’re tired of being stonewalled.”
The Wiyot Tribe of the Table Bluff Rancheria, who are the complainant in the lawsuit against the Loleta schools, had previously sent letters to the district about the harassment and inequitable treatment of Native American students, but saw no effective change in policy, Nelson said.

Eureka City schools officials posted a statement on their web page stating they were not aware of evidence to support the allegations but are actively investigating the charges to determine the facts. “The well being of our students continues to be a top priority,” the statement reads.

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Eureka City schools officials declined to comment further, and Loleta schools officials did not return phone calls asking for comment.

Nelson said it was hard to believe the schools could be unaware, especially when data and documentation backs up many claims about the discipline issues. According to 2009-10 data from the California Office of Civil Rights, for instance, 60 percent of out-of-school suspensions at Loleta schools were for Native American students even though they’re less than a third of the student population.

Yurok Education Services Director Jim McQuillen said he was not surprised that the allegations involved tribal students being pushed into the district’s continuation schools. According to the lawsuit, Native American students were enrolled at these schools at three times the rate of their enrollment at schools district-wide during the 2011-2012 school year.

“We’ve been concerned about the rate that they push American Indian kids into the quote ‘community’ schools for years because you don’t do college prep in there,” he said. “And if generation after generation gets sent to those schools, it becomes a dysfunctional norm. We want to stop that.”

The lawsuit alleges that a Yurok student was sent to the continuation schools for “credit recovery” when the schools are meant for students who’ve had a history of behavior issues or are involved in the juvenile justice system. This is a common practice with Native American students, Nelson said.

While not familiar with the specifics of the case, McQuillen acknowledged that the schools’ curriculum is deeply lacking in the history and culture of local tribes, even though Humboldt State University and the Yuroks themselves have developed materials and programs available for the schools to adopt.

“The history of the genocide here has been white-washed. At other places, you would see monuments or symbols for the people who lost their lives, and these help our communities heal,” he said. “We are still in recovery from what happened, still bringing back our dances and cultural practices.”

That very history that is excluded from the curriculum, Nelson said, adds an additional layer of trauma to the Native American students who have been allegedly abused by the schools. A few parents, she said, relayed stories of their children being taught by teachers whose ancestors were involved in the Indian massacres during the Gold Rush-era genocide.
“This genocide is very much in the living memory of these communities,” she said.

In addition to damages, both lawsuits seek remedies to school policies by requiring a formal process for collaboration with tribes, a more robust and transparent complaint process and better recording keeping.

Even though he knows some good teachers in the district, McQuillen said resistance to change among school officials is still a barrier to achieving a culturally competent curriculum for Native American students.

“We were able to make some strides recently by getting the Yurok language classes at Eureka High,” he said. “That’s how easy some of the solutions are if we put our minds together, but bureaucracies are slow to change.”