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School district attracts lawsuit for discrimination

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Sam Antoine was a sixth-grader when he became a criminal.

Antoine hit a non-Indian student while on school property and was coerced into signing an affidavit confessing to the crime, which was turned over to law enforcement. Antoine ended up in juvenile court. He did not have legal counsel and was never read his rights.

Antoine, 16, and now in the ninth grade in the Winner School District, is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He said he was reacting to the other student, who had shoved him.

Antoine said that non-Indian students try to intimidate Indian students just to get them in trouble.

There is a pattern of behavior at Winner’s middle and high schools that prompted the filing of a lawsuit in federal court. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the case on behalf of 10 plaintiffs. Class action has also been sought.

Antoine’s name is at the top of the plaintiff list, and the lawsuit is named for him: Antoine v. Winner School District.

This lawsuit has a broader base than just in South Dakota or the school district. It represents racial problems and a disparity of discipline in school districts across the nation in towns that border Indian reservations. A flag is raised when the majority or a large number of American Indian students are enrolled in elementary grades, only to have those numbers reduce in the upper grades.

Thirty percent of the students in the elementary grades at Winner are American Indian; 14 percent of high school students are American Indian; and between two and four American Indian students have graduated each year in the past few years, according to school records.

“Based on the complaints from the community, we expected to see instances of unfair treatment; but the degree of the disparity … the fact that one in seven kids is arrested at school, shocks even those who expect to see that. We’ve never seen disparities this great anywhere else across the country,” said Catherine Kim, ACLU lead attorney.

“[The] utter disregard for Native American student rights that has been exhibited by this school district even shocks those of us who are trained to work with these issues.”

Investigations have been ongoing for more than two years in this case. Families and students have been interviewed; school and court records have been searched.

What was found is a trend referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Winner is a prime example of the school-to-prison pipeline trend,” Kim said.

“Native American students in Winner are three times more likely than their Caucasian counterparts to be suspended, and 10 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement,” she said.

At the heart of the case, according to the ACLU, are the confessions signed on affidavits the ACLU argues are coerced. Those affidavits are turned over law enforcement; the student is taken from school by police and ends up in juvenile court.

Winner is located in south-central South Dakota next to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. A large population of American Indians lives in Winner, which was historically part of the Rosebud reservation until the allotment period in the early 20th century.

Racial epithets uttered by non-Indian students are not uncommon yet are rarely punished, attorneys claim. The school district punished two students for racial remarks between the school years of 2003 – ’05, according to the complaint.

American Indian students are referred to as “dirty Indians,” “black boy,” “Indian bitch” and “prairie n____,” and they are told to go back to the reservation.

Lance Battle, a former middle school student but not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the middle school principal once called him a n_____.

Battle is black and American Indian, and is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He transferred to a school on the reservation.

Taylor White Buffalo loves to play basketball and read. When he was in the fifth grade, while playing basketball with some friends, a non-Indian student taunted him with a basketball and pushed him with it. White Buffalo asked the other student to stop but was pushed again, at which point he hit the non-Indian student.

White Buffalo was arrested and prosecuted for criminal misconduct. He was told to sign an affidavit confessing his crime. The non-Indian student did not receive any punishment. White Buffalo’s parents were told that shoving or pushing did not constitute a crime.

Jennifer Ring, executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas, said that if a person even touches someone without their permission, that is an assault.

“This is minor school-kid conflict and misconduct. There is a culture of institutional fear. Totally natural school misconduct is aggressively prosecuted by the school administrators and the prosecutor in the town, and it’s a crime. Whenever I questioned that, they waved the Columbine flag,” said Dana Hanna, attorney general for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

“Eleven- and 12-year-old kids have been removed from that school in the back of a police car, taken to the police station, fingerprinted and photographed – for one kid slapping another,” he said.

“What we intend to prove is that Winner has abdicated their role as educators and given discipline [authority] to the police officers, prosecutors and judges,” Hanna said.

He said they want the school district to treat children like children who will misbehave from time to time. Winner sees an American Indian student behaving badly and it becomes a criminal act; when a non-Indian misbehaves, it becomes kid stuff, Hanna said.

The lawsuit is not about money. It’s about forcing a change in the system, and to have all the juvenile records that occurred while at school expunged. Data on other school districts within the region and across the country are being collected.

The Winner School District had not been served with the complaint as of press time and did not respond to the charges. One year ago, district officials officially stated they had not engaged in racial discrimination.

Antoine will return to Winner school. He said he was not afraid of retaliation. When asked if he feared extra scrutiny from faculty and administration, he said he has never done, nor will he do, anything wrong.

His grandmother, Lavina Milk, said she feared for him. This is the first trouble Antoine has ever been i