Since time immemorial, tribes have passed down their cultures, languages and traditions through Indigenous ways of learning and knowing; holistic learning through direct engagement with rivers, forests, and the natural world, through oral histories, with the participation of entire tribal communities. Education has always been key to Indigenous ways of life. But with the first contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, public education became a tool of oppression.
Today, Native American students across the country and throughout California continue to face disproportionately higher rates of exclusionary discipline, chronic absenteeism, and lower academic outcomes than their nonIndigenous peers. In Humboldt County, home to nearly twenty times more Indigenous students than the statewide average, these disparities are egregious.
But with the first contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, public education became a tool of oppression. Today, Native American students across the country and throughout California continue to face disproportionately higher rates of exclusionary discipline, chronic absenteeism, and lower academic outcomes than their nonIndigenous peers. In Humboldt County, home to nearly twenty times more Indigenous students than the statewide average, these disparities are egregious.
Humboldt County Schools Fail to Ensure Educational Equity for Indigenous Students
This report highlights existing data on Indigenous student academic achievement, school-based mental health supports, and school push-out from school districts across Humboldt County.
Indigenous Students Experience Vast Disparities in Academic Outcomes
Educational outcomes for Native American students in Humboldt County are far worse than educational outcomes for other students. In shockingly high numbers, Native American students graduate from Humboldt County high schools unprepared to enter the workforce or higher education. According to data from the California Department of Education, among students in Humboldt County schools:
- In the 2018–19 school year, only about 20% of Native American students who were tested in English Language Arts standards met or exceeded those standards.
- From 2016–19, Native American students met or exceeded grade level math standards at less than half the rate of all California students.
- In the 2017–18 school year, only 1% of Native American high school graduates met eligibility requirements to attend University of California and California State University schools. This is a consistent trend: in 2016–17 and 2018–19, 87–90% of Native American high school graduates did not meet these requirements.
These data reflect a system that poorly equips Native American students with the skills and tools they need to succeed in primary or secondary education as well as in college and the workforce. This has lasting ripple effects, including overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, disparities in life-long health outcomes, and limited access to economic opportunities. Appallingly high numbers of Indigenous students are leaving the public school system unprepared for professional careers or to serve in formal leadership and decision-making roles within their communities.
Schools Do Not Foster School Climates Where Indigenous Students Can Thrive
- Native American students are pushed out of Humboldt County schools at higher rates than their peers, depriving them of critical instruction time. This includes push-out through exclusionary discipline and chronic absenteeism, which can be traced to root discriminatory causes. Indigenous students in Humboldt County experience suspension rates nearly five times the state average for white students.1 Three years of data from ten districts with relatively large total student enrollment and/or large percentages of Native American students show that, year after year, nearly every district suspended Native American students at disproportionately higher rates.
- While rates of “defiance” suspensions in California (where students are alleged to have “disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied” the authority of school staff) have significantly decreased due to changes in state law in recent years, the “defiance” suspension rate for Indigenous students in Humboldt County schools has increased. Indigenous students continue to be disproportionately excluded from school for “defiance” even while districts are eliminating these suspensions and suspension can no longer be used to discipline millions of California students for “defiance” (an extremely subjective term that invites implicit bias against Native American and Black students).
- Indigenous students in Humboldt County experience chronic absenteeism at more than double the rate of all students throughout the state.
Students Do Not Have Adequate Access — if Any — to Mental Health Professionals
All students in Humboldt County, including Indigenous students, are deprived of the care and attention of critical school-based health professionals. The need for these supports is especially acute in Humboldt County, where higher than average numbers of people report significant life trauma. While there are community-based organizations and grassroots movements working, against the current, to transform systems of care and provide culturally based, locally driven services, the vast majority of students in Humboldt County attend schools where health professional staff are sorely lacking.
- Nearly 90% of districts in Humboldt County — 28 districts in total — did not employ a single school nurse. In fact, across Humboldt County, the number of school nurses has fallen precipitously in recent years.
- In 2018–19, there were no full-time social workers on staff at school districts in Humboldt County.
- There were no psychologists in 22 Humboldt County districts.
This data is especially alarming given the current COVID-19 health crisis when students need consistent physical and mental health care more than ever.
Public Education of Indigenous Youth Has Been A Tool of Colonization
The public education system was never intended to benefit Native American students or tribal communities. Beginning in the 19th century and lasting for generations, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were forcibly abducted from their families, communities and tribes by government agents and sent to boarding schools, often hundreds of miles away from home. Education was used as a weapon of cultural genocide and forced assimilation. Children faced severe physical and emotional abuse if they were caught speaking their native tongue in the classroom. They were forced to abandon their tribal customs, traditions, and languages; in short, to give up everything that made them Indigenous. As a result of the Boarding School Era and countless other oppressive governmental policies and practices intended to erase Indigenous peoples, history, identity, and culture, Indigenous children and communities share a legacy of historical and intergenerational trauma. Today, some students are only two generations removed from the traumatic boarding school experience, with grandparents and other extended family who were abused and degraded in these schools.
In accessing an equitable education, one that prepares students for college and career, Indigenous students have unique educational needs and continue to face a number of overwhelming systemic barriers that can lead to student alienation and disengagement from school, including:
- Lack of culturally relevant and responsive curriculum that includes Indigenous history, language, governance, culture and worldviews;
- Invisibility of Native American contributions to society and inaccurate depictions of California and U.S. history;
- Overuse of disciplinary practices such as suspension, expulsion, referrals to law enforcement, and involuntary transfers to alternative schools that provide an inferior education;
- Failure to provide school-based student supports, including culturally relevant school-based mental health professionals and programs designed to promote student well-being that keep students in school, such as culturally relevant trauma-informed practices.
- Bullying and racially hostile school environments; and
- Poor transportation and lack of access to health care.
Call to Action
Native American students in Humboldt County are thus more likely to experience worse life outcomes because they are not receiving the support and resources they need to thrive in school. These data are a call to action for parents, educators and leaders across Humboldt County to find solutions and resources to address the crisis of under-education, de facto exclusion, and failure to provide a meaningful foundation for Indigenous students to achieve their true potential.