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Student dies in holding cell at BIA school

SALEM, Ore. - Sixteen year old Cindy Gilbert Sohappy died Dec. 6 in a holding cell where she was placed by school officials because she was intoxicated.

BIA, school officials nor investigators are saying anything about the incident other than to acknowledge that an investigation is under way.

The actual cause of death is not known.

The only facts known are that Sohappy was placed in a locked holding cell after she returned to the school campus intoxicated. The cell is locked from the outside and cannot be opened from the inside.

Fire Department officials from Salem had warned the school a decade ago about changing the locking system on the cells. Present Fire Marshall Jan Bayless said the department is not required to routinely inspect the school because it is federally operated. But he said according to a report the school did something with the locks.

Two school administrators and two security officers at the school were placed on administrative leave. BIA officials said this is not a disciplinary measure, but routine.

School Superintendent Larry Byers was traveling and unavailable for comment. Other school officials did not return phone calls.

The school parent and student handbook outlines disciplinary action, but does not specifically identify the holding cells that were used. It does state that if an offense warrants, a student could be held in the security office's holding facility.

The school does not have medically trained personnel on site, according to the IHS unit in Salem. Should a student need medical attention 911 is used or they are transported to the IHS unit. If it is after hours a student may be sent to a local public medical facility, IHS officials said.

Salem police claim that drinking by the Chemawa students is a problem, however, the Office of Indian Education Program's report shows that drinking or any substance abuse by Chemawa students is no larger a problem there than at any other school in the BIA system, on a per-capita basis.

In the school year 2001-02, 36 students were cited for substance abuse. The 2002-03 school year saw a decline to 29 students.

Chemawa school has counselors on staff that deal specifically with substance abuse and students are required to be evaluated and attend counseling sessions after a violation of the substance abuse rules.

Chemawa is an off-reservation boarding school located in a very populated area. In comparison, another off-reservation school, located in a more remote area, Flandreau Indian School at Flandreau, S.D. has seen a reduction in substance abuse.

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In the 2002-03 school year Flandreau disciplined 39 students. The next year, only six students broke the substance abuse rules.

"We have zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol use," said Stuart Zephier, academic principal.

He said if a student is intoxicated to the point of passing out or near that, a staff person will immediately call 911 or if the case is not severe will transport the student to the medical facility in Flandreau.

"The staff will do a triage and make a determination. We haven't had to call 911.

"If the student just needs to sleep it off, a staff member will monitor that student every 15 minutes."

He said if a student has been drinking they are placed in a transitional dormitory. The student must take a form to each instructor to sign and be on his/her best behavior. They will be in transition for nine days or until they accumulate 450 points for good behavior. They can earn 50 points a day. The student is also required to attend counseling sessions.

Flandreau Indian school has 497 students, much the same enrollment as Chemawa.

Zephier said the worst time of year is the fall when claustrophobia starts to set in. The students, he said, will look for buyers to supply them with alcohol or drugs.

At Chemawa, one BIA official and four security officers are part of the school's staff. It is their responsibility to report and deal with these types of incidents.

The school lists 13 faculty and 60 staff members.

A study by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported 5 million teenagers admitted to binge drinking and stated that 36 percent of all teenagers in the class of 1999 at least tried alcohol before the age of 15 and as early as age 11. In 1975, the Columbia report stated the figure was 27 percent.

The report stated that American teenagers have a problem with alcohol abuse. In 1998 the report found that one-quarter of underage drinkers consumed as much as $27 billion worth of alcohol - $15 billion on beer alone.

The results of the study indicated that alcohol was the substance of choice among teenagers. By their senior year in high school, 80 percent of teen-agers had tried alcohol, compared with 47 percent who had experimented with marijuana and 29 percent who had tried another illegal drug, the study found.

The investigation at Chemawa is ongoing and as long as the investigation is under way the four school officials will be on leave, said Nedra Darling, spokesperson for the Department of Interior and BIA.