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School district settles lawsuit with conditions

WINNER, S.D. - The Winner School District and the American Indian community reached an agreement that will settle a class-action lawsuit against the school district.

The lawsuit included all American Indian students who attended the Winner district school system. The lawsuit charged the school district with improper disciplinary actions against the American Indian students in middle and high school.

''This groundbreaking settlement agreement is a major step toward ensuring that our children have the best educational opportunities possible,'' said Rodney Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

Winner is located within the original boundaries of the Rosebud Reservation and one of the tribe's districts lies within the city.

The American Civil Liberties Union conducted a survey and filed the lawsuit on behalf of several plaintiffs in 2006. The ACLU calls the school's action the ''school-to-prison pipeline.'' Many middle school children were felons before ever entering high school and the dropout rate reflected that method of discipline.

American Indian students complained they were ridiculed and called derogatory names by non-Indian students. When the students fought, it was the American Indian student who was disciplined, the students and ACLU attorneys said.

''Across the nation, education for Native American youth is in crisis. In Winner School District, Native American students drop out of school, transfer to other districts or are sent to detention facilities at rates far higher than white students,'' said Catherine Kim, attorney for the ACLU.

''We are pleased that the Winner School District has agreed to take proactive steps to support Native American students. It is our hope that the district can serve as a model for other communities serving minority students,'' Kim said.

The settlement agreement was worked out between the Winner School Board and the plaintiff's attorneys, tribal officials and family members of the plaintiffs.

''Our goal was to act in the best way possible for all children of this district and move on,'' said Rocky Blare, president of the Winner School Board.

''With this settlement, we have welcomed the opportunity to provide visibility into our disciplinary policies and our cultural diversity.''

Many students transferred to other schools. The Todd County School, in Mission, which is on the Rosebud Reservation, received some of the students. Additional dormitory space was planned to accommodate that increase.

Students claimed they were harassed and called names. One student said he was called a ''dirty raunchy Indian.'' He was punished for a confrontation with the name caller, but school records show the name caller was not punished.

The same student was accused of gang activity with a gang in Rapid City some 220 miles away. The student said he was never in Rapid City. He was suspended once for drawing a medicine wheel and writing ''Native Pride'' in a notebook.

Other students who wrote ''Native Pride,'' or drew the image of pipes or pictures of coyotes or feathers were also disciplined and accused of gang activity.

Many times parents had no idea their child was in trouble until they received a call from the police or juvenile court. Many times the children are interrogated by school officials without the benefit of a parent or guardian present.

The out-of-school suspension for American Indian students was 59 percent, for other students, 25 percent. In-school suspension for American Indian students was 85 percent.

The complaint argued that the school district discriminated against the American Indian students, and were hostile toward their families. Statements taken from the students involving the disciplinary matters were later used to prosecute them in either juvenile or criminal courts.

The school district denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to enter into the settlement discussions, which were mediated by U.S. Magistrate Judge John E. Simko. The agreement will avoid a lengthy and expensive litigation, both sides claim.

The settlement agreement will be in effect until the district complies with the terms for four consecutive years. The federal district court will have jurisdiction over this agreement. The agreement becomes effective when the parties sign a consent decree and when any objections are absolved.

School district agrees to changes in discipline practices

The Winner School District, located adjacent to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Reservation has agreed to change the methods of disciplining American Indian students.

A lawsuit against the district prompted the parties to arrange a settlement agreement that contains stipulations the district must follow while it is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court.

Past school disciplinary procedures led many American Indian students to leave school, and many were subjected to juvenile court. It was referred to as the ''school-to-prison pipeline.''

The school district must adhere to the following conditions:

* School officials will not require students to write statements that can be used to prosecute them in court.

* The district will hire a full-time ombudsman, nominated by the collective American Indian community, to serve as a liaison between American Indian families and school officials.

* An educational professional will work with school officials and American Indian families to set benchmarks to improve graduation rates, reduce levels of suspension and school-based arrests, and improve the overall climate for American Indian students.

* A committee made up of school officials and parents will review all disciplinary incidents every quarter for racial disparities and if the disparities are found without explanation, the committee will recommend policy changes.

* The Interwest Equity Assistance Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, will provide trainings for Winner students on conflict resolution and training for teachers on unconscious racial bias and educational equity.

* The schools will include American Indian themes in the mainstream curriculum, in-school activities and after-school activities. Additionally, the district will offer American Indian culture, history and language class in the high school, taught by an American Indian instructor.