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South Dakota racial dispute threatens teens

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STEPHAN, S.D. ? An act of racial violence directed at a group of girls driving home from a basketball game has Crow Creek Tribal School officials, parents and fans worried about the safety of students traveling to athletic events in South Dakota.

One non-Indian youth from Miller, confessed to firing a weapon during an altercation with members of the Crow Creek girls basketball team. There were two teens in the car from which the weapon was fired.

Hand County officials said they are weighing what charges may be brought against the individual who fired a shotgun and possibly others who were involved. The state's attorney refused to comment on whether individuals were in custody.

School officials and parents said they believe the incident was racially motivated. The head coach was the object of shouted obscenities and derogatory remarks as well.

Three members of the tribal school's girls basketball team and three spectators on their way home from a district basketball game told officers they were threatened by white, male teens wielding a shotgun Nov. 1. The incident occurred in Miller, a town just an hour from the Crow Creek Sioux reservation in central South Dakota.

Miller was supposed to be a neutral site for the game, which Crow Creek lost to Wessington Springs by one point in a hard-fought battle that went to the final buzzer.

School officials said the girls were allowed to ride separately from their teammates on the bus, but had joined the team for a meal at a Miller fast-food restaurant.

As the girls were leaving the restaurant, the male teens drove up to the restaurant in three cars and began shouting obscenities, derogatory statements and making lewd hand gestures toward to the girls.

In retaliation, one of the girls threw an ice cream drink out of the window at a car belonging to one of the Hand County teens, school officials, parents and law enforcement reported.

From there, they said things got quickly out of hand. Witnesses said three vehicles carrying a group of white, male teens chased the vehicle the girls were riding in as they began to travel home.

One car passed the girls' vehicle and hit the brakes while another followed closely behind. The driver of the girls' vehicle attempted to pass the car at which time reports show the male teen-ager fired a rifle from the passenger side of the car toward the girls.

Statements filed by the Crow Creek girls said four shots were fired at them as they dived to the floorboard for cover.

Frightened, the girls returned to the restaurant to tell their teammates, coach and families what happened. The three cars of white teens chased their vehicle back to the restaurant where one girl alleges the teen-ager in possession of the shotgun threatened her, pointing the weapon inside the vehicle the girls occupied.

Two Hand County teen-agers, taken into custody after the incident, told police the young man shot the gun only once, but Crow Creek Tribal School officials said he confessed a day later to firing multiple times toward the vehicle.

Still trying to sort out details, Hand County law enforcement officials continued to interview witnesses, students and the teens involved in the incident.

The incident has shaken school officials, parents and students at the high school who are concerned about their safety while traveling to sporting events.

Barry Thompson, head coach of the girls basketball team and financial manager of the tribal school, witnessed some of the events. He said he went outside after the girls returned to the restaurant and was subject to the same shouted obscenities and derogatory remarks while he was standing near the team bus.

The restaurant manager called the Hand County Sheriff's Office and a deputy sheriff responded. Reports show that as he began to take statements from the girls, the car with the teens that had the shotgun pulled into the parking lot.

Instead of immediately taking the teens into custody and confiscating the weapon, the deputy briefly talked to them and went inside the restaurant to take statements from the girls.

Thompson said he asked the officer, 'Aren't you going to do anything with them? They are the ones that shot the gun. They probably have the gun right now.'

''Oh they won't go any place, I told them to stay there,' he said,' Thompson reported.

Defying the deputy's order to remain in the lot, the teens pulled away and Thompson said an off-duty deputy jumped in a patrol car in pursuit of the boys.

After talking to the local teen-agers, the deputy said the teens shot out of frustration because the girls threw ice cream at their vehicle, suggesting the behavior of the victims caused the event.

'That doesn't make any difference. That doesn't give them the right to shoot a gun at my girls,' Thompson said.

Hand County authorities escorted the Crow Creek team bus to the reservation making sure students arrived home without further incidents.

One girl was taken to a hospital and treated for shock and the others were absent from school for a day, recovering from the event, Thompson said.

Crow Creek Tribal School CEO Scott Raue said school counselors worked with the girls to arrest their fears and help them recover from what was a traumatic event. 'They are still shook up.'

Crow Creek School officials contacted the U.S. attorney's office, hoping it would intervene. They said they were told that since the event took place off the reservation, it was out of federal jurisdiction and it will be up to Hand County authorities to prosecute the crime.

'They promise they are going to prosecute to the fullest extent,' Raue said, adding, 'It's a juvenile situation and we may never hear about the outcome.

'Let's say the roles were reversed. You tell me what would happen,' Raue said, still shocked at the event.

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'We've shown restraint. We've shown we are trying to do things the right way. We just want results. We want to let community members know that this has happened and we're not going to cover it up,' Raue said.

Crow Creek Tribal School officials are looking into raising security by having a BIA officer accompany them when teams travel the state, he said.

Raue said when they have events at Crow Creek, school officials bring extra people to the campus to increase security.

Thompson, the object of racial slurs, said there was little doubt in his mind it was a racial issue.

Leah Harrison, a Minneapolis, Minn., parent whose daughter attends Crow Creek, said the incident was horrifying. She attended the game and had allowed her daughter to ride home with her friends.

Harrison said she chose to send her daughter to the tribal school because she thought she would be safer out of an urban environment and among her own people on the Crow Creek Sioux reservation.

'She could have been killed. Nothing is more important than her life.'

Harrison said she had been forewarned by friends of the prejudice in South Dakota, but she was reassured rural areas would be safe.

'I thought she was safer there, and now I realize it's everywhere.'

Harrison suggested parents should rethink how their students travel and take extra precautions to make sure they are safe. 'Now I think everybody should start sticking together. Nobody should take off on their own.'

American Indian organizations that serve as civil rights watch dogs have contacted Harrison. 'The Native American Rights Fund wanted me to call them and another Indian rights organization in Nebraska' asked her to call them back,' she said.

Harrison said her daughter and the others are still coming to grips with the incident nearly a week later. 'She is still pretty scared. All the girls are scared. Somebody popped a balloon yesterday, she said, and they all ducked.'

Harrison had returned to Fort Thompson and was waiting for her daughter to get home. When the girls were delayed, she became worried. Then her daughter called her from the City Hall in Miller to let her know what was happening.

'A lot people said maybe the girls should have just let it go. I said, 'What are you teaching your girls?' They didn't know they had a gun,' Harrison said.

Hand County States Attorney Jim Jones said a minimum of two and maybe as many as four shots were fired from the shotgun. Nobody was injured and there was no property damage.

'They are being prosecuted to the fullest extent in the juvenile system. The investigation hasn't concluded yet,' Jones said, adding no decision has been made about what charges might be filed. He wouldn't disclose if the juveniles were released or if they are still in custody.

'I view this as atrocious, dangerous, embarrassing ? truly of dire concern to law enforcement in this community. It is being aggressively pursued,' Jones said.

At the minimum, he said the teens will face a charge of discharging a weapon, but they could face more serious multiple counts of aggravated assault. Conviction on aggravated assault would carry a penalty of more than 10 years, he said.

State Sen. Ron Volesky, D-Huron, responded in disbelief upon hearing about the event.

'Pointing the gun was enough,' said Volesky, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member running for governor. 'In this case, if the girls saw the gun, it is an assault even if the gun was unloaded. If this proves out to be true, I'm extremely angered.

He said the U.S. attorney's office should make an investigation even if they don't prosecute.

'I can't imagine how these girls felt. I'm outraged.'

Volesky said he knows Jones and has 'every confidence he will pursue this to the fullest extent and will do it correctly. I'm going to monitor this ... I think tribal authorities should monitor it to make sure justice is done here and make sure these girls are protected under the statutes of the state.'

Crow Creek school officials said they are concerned the incident could lead to further friction between tribal and non-tribal people.

There was an incident three years ago involving a group of Crow Creek fans who threw plastic bottles at officials following a game. The district immediately contacted the South Dakota High School Activities Association and sent letters of apology to everyone involved, owning up to the incident.

'We went into a district meeting and they took the (district tournaments) away from us. Miller was really strong in saying their fans didn't feel safe attending games at Crow Creek,' Raue said.

The schools will set up a district meeting to decide what they will do about the issue.

Crow Creek Tribal Chairwoman Roxanne Sazue sent a letter to the state High School Activities Association about the concern of playing in Miller.

'It is really out of their hands. It comes down to a district decision,' Raue said.

Thompson said he fears for the safety of elderly tribal members who often travel to watch their grandchildren play. He said the incident could have just as easily happened to a senior citizen who might not have escaped without injury.

Miller school officials said little more than that since the incident didn't take place on school grounds, it was up to local authorities to deal with it.