What William Mendoza found during the Department of Education’s first-ever cross-country listening tour was encouraging—schools that were trying to be more sensitive to American Indian and Alaska Native families’ needs—and heartbreaking—students who have been the victims of horrific incidents of racial discrimination. Mendoza, Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, is executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. The tour was undertaken in conjunction with the department’s Office of Civil Rights.
School Discipline, Restraint, & Seclusion Highlights
The goal of the nine-city tour was to find out what AI/AN communities, parents and students had to say about whether today’s schools are meeting their needs and providing a safe and healthy learning environment. It was designed to hear from people nationwide in rural, reservation, and urban schools, and from students in schools outside Indian country where there may be only a handful of AI/AN kids. “Those are the most invisible and most vulnerable,” says Mendoza.
Says Mendoza, “[We are developing] a body of knowledge, not just hearing from tribal leaders or educators on this issue. We’re doing that, we have done that, but this is the first step in the Education Department hearing directly from the students. That has been largely absent from the work of the department.”
When Mendoza talked to tribal leaders about what challenges and issues the listening tour should address, he heard about bullying, student discipline and curriculum, but the most pressing matter, leaders said, is indigenous imagery and symbolism in schools.
“Research points to this having an adverse effect on students and that states and schools need to address this issue and work with tribal leaders to make sure we have safe and welcoming environments for our students,” says Mendoza.
The department found 2,432 public schools with indigenous-based mascots or nicknames. Rating the schools on a scale from 1 to 5 in terms of how harmful the depiction of the AI/AN community, 1,612, or 66 percent, raised concerns.
“What we’ve heard from families and students is that they feel isolated and unable to address this in their communities, especially the further they get from tribal centers, whether they’re on reservations or urban Native centers. This is where they feel most unsupported,” he adds.
One way the White House initiative can help, Mendoza says, is to make people aware that they have a resource in the Office of Civil Rights. “We want more folks utilizing the civil rights process. We need to know more about the harm these mascots, imagery and symbolism are doing and figure out how we can do better to help inform schools and inform our grant structures to work in more proactive ways to address those concerns.”
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education
Laree Pourier, Oglala Lakota, speaking at the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education’s listening tour.
Bullying is another area where a lot more work needs to be done. Mendoza says, “There’s an account that came to us from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, about a young lady who when she was having a conversation with a young man, he was saying ‘I’m going to give you guys smallpox blankets,’ and he was taunting her with this and it kept on and kept on. She felt like she had to respond. And her reaction was, ‘Yeah, you’re white. Your men raped our women.’ They began to go back and forth on this in the classroom. A male teacher came into the conversation, and recounting this, the young lady said that she thought he was going to stop the conversation. Instead of stopping it, he said, ‘Well, in actuality your women raped our men,’ and he began to argue this point. The end result was that the whole class was involved in this, laughter was involved, she was uncomfortable and it ended with the teacher putting a stop to it by saying, ‘OK, OK, you win the debate. Your reward is blankets.’”
Mendoza continues, “She only mentioned this incident in passing to her mom. It’s just heartbreaking,” in part because the bullying behavior is so normalized that a student mentions it only in passing.
“This school district was doing some really positive things. They were speaking about their path of trying to do more for Native students. It was a really hard conversation to have with the community at that time and we don’t know where it’s going, but it’s testimony not only of the normalcy of this issue, but how tough and challenging this is even under the best of circumstances,” says Mendoza. “Clearly we need to have more information about it, what’s happening in these schools, particularly where there are limited Native students and Native families. They feel lost, they feel isolated without supports.”
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Lyle Ignace, executive director of the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, moderated at one of the listening tour stops.
Two other areas that parents talked about were curriculum and discipline. They want to have a say in curriculum decisions in order to ensure that the history of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas in taught thoroughly and correctly. And they want to work with schools to develop discipline procedures that are culturally appropriate.
“Parents feel alone in being able to make changes in the schools and so they’re looking for help from tribal leaders. They’re looking for collaboration at the leadership level,” says Mendoza. “They want to expand pathways to make sure our students have the same opportunities that are offered in neighboring communities.”
Mendoza would welcome comments from more people. “Comments may be submitted in any form people feel comfortable with, handwritten, email, take a picture with your phone, do a video clip, do a sound clip. This is going to be an ongoing conversation,” says Mendoza. “We’re planning to release a report on our initial findings and recommendations that will inform our work going forward in December or January.” Submit comments to email@example.com.