Stopping Abuse of Native-American Schoolchildren

Sep 05, 2008
ACLU of Northern California

It was a child's simple refusal to give up a bandana belonging to his recently deceased grandfather that led to a landmark settlement regarding discriminatory discipline against Native-American students at the hands of the Bishop Union Elementary School District (BUESD).

Bishop, located in the eastern Sierras, has a population of about 3,400, with approximately 1,500 members of the Paiute Tribe living on a nearby reservation.

Violent Incident

In October 2005, a campus police officer, also known as a school resource officer (SRO), demanded that an eighth-grader hand over the bandana he was wearing, citing the school's dress code.

The child removed the scarf but asked to be able to put it in his locker rather than handing it over to the SRO. The SRO handcuffed the Native-American boy and threw him to the ground.

When nearby students, mostly Native American, began to protest the treatment, the SRO forced several of them to the ground, as well. One child briefly lost consciousness.

After school administrators dispersed the crowd, they slapped immediate suspensions on all the students involved. A parent contacted the ACLU of Northern California.

Disturbing Trend

During the ensuing investigation, conducted by the ACLU and cooperating attorneys at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, a deeply disturbing trend was uncovered. For example, between 2000 and 2006, Native-American students were disciplined at more than double their percentage in the population – a much higher rate than their peers.

Among other findings:

  • From 2000 to 2006, suspension of Native-American students occurred disproportionately for discretionary offenses like "defiance," in comparison with concrete offenses such as carrying a weapon;
  • In 2002 to 2003, Native-American students were approximately 16 percent of the population yet incurred almost 43 percent of the suspensions and expulsions; and
  • In 2002 to 2003, the only sixth graders suspended at Home Street Middle School were Native American.

High Drop-Out Rate for Native-American Students

As a result of its punitive approach, the district experienced unusually high attrition rates. In 2006, half of Native-American sixth graders and close to a quarter of eighth graders were in continuation schools.

Statistics show that continuation schools are in many cases an educational dead end for youth, since many drop out before graduating or graduate without the classes necessary to go to college.

Settlement Leads to Broad Reforms

In September 2007, facing civil rights violations and a potentially costly legal battle, BUESD agreed to a groundbreaking settlement , which will remain in effect until 2012, that will protect Native-American children from racial discrimination and harsher disciplinary treatment than their peers.

Highlights of the settlement include:

  • Removal of all SROs from district schools;
  • Implementation of a staff development program that includes instruction on anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, ways to increase respect for different cultures in general and Native-American cultures in particular, and implementing a culturally appropriate curriculum;
  • Student development to create understanding of diverse cultures and to build curriculum change and conflict resolution into students' daily lives;
  • Statistical reporting and complaint documentation; and
  • Expungement of records containing the improper suspension of our clients.