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Montana’s Pipeline to Prison—and Suicide—for Native Kids

Law graduate Melina Healey recently discussed her study, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline Tragedy on Montana’s American Indian Reservations” with ICTMN.

A new legal paper on racial disparities in juvenile justice is laced with searing narratives of wrongs suffered by Native schoolchildren on Montana’s remote and windswept reservations. Law graduate Melina Healey’s study, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline Tragedy on Montana’s American Indian Reservations,” has just appeared in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change.

According to Healey, who got her NYU law degree this past May, the school-to-prison phenomenon has been well documented in poor, minority communities nationwide. However, it’s been generally ignored with respect to Montana’s reservations, where the problem is extreme. “I’m baffled by this,” she said in an interview. “It’s a staggering tragedy.”

Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Projectsaid the paper made a valuable contribution by focusing on a population that is frequently left out of the discussion. “Healey documents a confluence of factors that have harmful consequences for Indian children and lead to them being denied the most basic opportunities for educational achievement.”

Stuck in failing public schools in impoverished communities, Montana’s American Indian children face high rates of suspension, expulsion and arrest, with little regard for due process, Healey found. Being pushed out of school means separation from friends and positive routines and, for many youngsters, regular meals. This, in turn, drives not just trouble with the law but also some of the nation’s highest suicide rates, according to Healey. She recounts heartbreaking stories of Montana Native kids who killed themselves, or tried to, after being disciplined at school.

“Healey tells yet another sad story of our school systems failing to meet the needs of our youngest First Americans,” said former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, founder of the Center for Native American Youth, a policy group that advocates for the health, safety and well-being of Indian children. “Our federal government has a trust responsibility to provide these services to Native American children and the fact is, we simply must do better.”

Numerous forces push schools to eject troubled students rather than work with them and their families, Healey learned. These include zero-tolerance programs and the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes inferior schools financially without offering meaningful resources for improvement. As a result, schools want to get rid of those students who require the most help to meet NCLB’s testing criteria.

School programs throughout Montana use simple techniques like counseling and mentoring very successfully, Healey found. However, the projects are so small and so few, they have little effect on the larger picture. In a recent year, Healey’s data show, Montana’s Native youngsters were more likely than their white peers to be arrested. Despite a similar breakdown of misdemeanor and felony charges, Native children were two-and-one-half times more likely to be sent to adult court than white children and twice as likely to be imprisoned. Meanwhile, white youngsters were more likely to be diverted to alternative out-of-court programs.

Healey suggests innovative legal remedies, including federal and state constitutional challenges. Her ideas are based in theories that question the neutrality of our justice system and look at ways it leaves in place what she calls “the larger structural issues of resource and power inequality.” This maintains institutional racism, even when the individuals involved may not intend racial bias; to remedy this, courts must consider the larger narrative that surrounds a controversy, Healey says.

She offered a recent example. In October 2013, the Montana Supreme Court dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of Fort Peck Indian Reservation teen Dalton Gourneau. The widely admired athlete shot himself after being kicked off the local high school wrestling team; his mother, tribal councilwoman and judge Roxanne Gourneau, sued the school.

RELATED: ‘He Was My Only Son’: Fort Peck Mother Calls for Congressional Inquiry

The court decided the school wasn’t liable because it couldn’t have foreseen that its actions would result in Dalton killing himself. “They got it all wrong,” said Healey. If the court had scrutinized the context of the teen’s action—including his passion for sports and Fort Peck’s numerous child suicides—it would have understood that dashing Dalton’s hopes made what he did entirely likely, according to Healey.

Healey concludes her paper: “Despair, prison and untimely death should not and need not be the ending places of public education for our most vulnerable children.”

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ICTMN spoke to Healey, now a judicial clerk for a federal judge in Tennessee.

How did you end up in Montana, researching the school-to-prison pipeline?

I was doing advocacy work related to this issue in New York City and wondered if similarities existed in rural areas. I’d worked in Montana as a wrangler and loved the state, so I contacted its ACLU chapter, which invited me to become a summer intern in 2011. I soon met Judge Gourneau, who introduced me to people at Fort Peck. All were eager to share their stories, and I felt very welcome.

You examine Montana as a whole, but scrutinize the town of Wolf Point in particular. How did that happen?

My research began with Freedom of Information Act requests for data from state agencies, so I could look for patterns. I also interviewed dozens of parents, tribal council members, public defenders, former teachers and others and heard deeply disturbing stories. These included Judge Gourneau’s account of her son’s suicide after being disciplined at Wolf Point High School. Eventually, I realized that Wolf Point, where many Fort Peck children attend public school, was the locus of some very bad patterns. In addition to great disparities between educational outcomes for white and American Indian children, there was the Indian child-suicide issue. This was all clearly related.

What was your impression of Wolf Point?

Initially, I was surprised to see a white enclave on an American Indian reservation, then realized how much white people benefit from the reservation, including jobs in the schools. They live in nice houses on top of a hill, while housing for American Indians is very different. Looking further, I saw how prominent school is in Fort Peck children’s lives and why expulsions and other disciplinary measures, applied unfairly, are devastating. Visiting Fort Peck and Wolf Point helped me understand.

What will help?

The school-to-prison pipeline and child suicides on American Indian reservations don’t get much attention or funds, so few are working on them. I hope bringing attention to these crises and to possible legal challenges will get people thinking.

Where do you see yourself eventually?

I’ll be working on the school-to-prison pipeline issue, as a public defender and as a representative of individual clients.

This story was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.