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Tribe settles with California school district over discrimination claims

Christine Wilson remembers the way the father of her children, an American Indian of the Paiute tribe, was picked on at school in Bishop, the small mountain town where they grew up. But watching their daughters get roughed up and suspended unfairly told her it was time for real change, she said.

Wilson and the parents of another American Indian child, backed by the Bishop Paiute tribe, announced Tuesday they’d reached a settlement with the Bishop Union Elementary School District designed to end what many families claimed was a long-standing pattern of discrimination that was driving Paiute children away from school system.

“I grew up here, and saw the same thing then, how the Native American kids were singled out,” said Wilson, 35. “I was seeing the same thing happen with my kids, how they start seeing themselves like they’re not worth much, won’t amount to much.”

While school officials say the district didn’t use discipline in a way that discriminated against the American Indian students, “there’s always room for improvement,” said Superintendent Barry Simpson, who took over about a year ago, before parents complained about mistreatment and sought legal counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We’re going to be taking a look at all our procedures a little more closely,” said Simpson. “It’ll be positive for all the students in our district, because this settlement will let our time and resources go to them, rather than litigation.”

All involved in the settlement, reached Sept. 12, agreed that avoiding a costly and divisive lawsuit was the best outcome for Bishop. The small mountain town of about 3,500 tucked into the folds of the Sierra Nevada and bordered by the Bishop Paiute Reservation is home to families who have been in the area for generations, and wanted to avoid animosity.

There was also some fear of potential racially motivated backlashes, attorneys said.

Just months before the incident that pushed parents to seek changes from the district, a tribal member was charged with killing a white liquor store owner. Days later, letters typed in red ink were left next to the tribe’s daycare center promising retaliation for “your half-witted bucks taking another white life.” The letters, turned into the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department, threatened to “kidnap, rape and dismember” Paiute girls.

The incident that led to the settlement happened eight months later, in October 2005, when there was still some residual fear in the community, attorneys said.

It all started when a police officer assigned to patrol Bishop’s middle school confronted a 13-year-old Paiute boy who was infringing dress code by wearing a bandanna during recess, said attorneys with the ACLU of Northern California who negotiated the agreement.

Officer Glenn McClinton, assigned to patrol the school, demanded the bandanna, said the boy’s grandmother, Caroline Stone, who is his guardian and didn’t want his name released.

The boy took it off, but didn’t want to hand it over. It was a gift to his grandmother from an American Indian dancer who attended the sweat lodge ceremonies she regularly held, and he’d taken it without permission.

It was then McClinton allegedly pushed the teenager to the ground and handcuffed him, Stone said.

Other children started protesting. Soon three American Indian children among them also were allegedly pushed to the ground, including Wilson’s daughter, 13 years old at the time. One white student asked the officer why he was picking on the American Indian kids, and she was put down on the ground as well, said Jory Steele, lawyer with the ACLU.

The boy with the bandanna was taken to the police station, but released later that day. All students involved were suspended for five days, Steele said.

Another of Wilson’s daughters, who worried about her sister and was watching the events unfold, was suspended for kicking open a set of double doors and running from the officer as he called to her.

“They were angry, but they felt it wasn’t going anywhere, that no one was going to listen,” said Wilson of the children. “They’d tried to complain in the past, no one had taken them seriously and they’d said they were troublemakers. These kids are not troublemakers.”

Although Bishop police officials couldn’t comment on the details, they said an internal investigation had been conducted, and the officer was found to have acted within the law.

“His actions were justified, consistent with his training and lawful,” said Bishop police Lt. Chris Carter. He also dismissed claims from the parents that McClinton had singled out Paiute children for punishment.

“That’s talk among folks,” Carter said. “No one has complained to the police department prior to or since this incident.”

The settlement holds that a police officer is no longer assigned to patrol the district’s schools.

An investigation by the ACLU of the school’s records on suspensions and expulsions from 2000-2006 found American Indian students, who make up about 17 percent of the student body, were disciplined at much higher rates than others.

Particularly, they made up 67 percent of those punished for subjective offenses like “defiance,” or “being disrespectful/argumentative.” The review of school records found students were suspended for minor infractions like dress code violations, having candy in class, chewing gum, and being late, although the state’s education code establishes suspension as a last resort, Steele said.

Repeated suspension and other punishment forced some of these students to attend continuation school, meant for students unable to meet the standards of the traditional school system. Others were transferred to continuation schools deliberately by their parents, who didn’t agree with the way their children were being treated in their assigned schools, the ACLU said in a letter to the school’s superintendent dated Oct. 2006.

In the 2005-2006 school year, half of the American Indian students in the 6th grade were in the continuation school, as well as seven of the 26 American Indians in the eighth grade, the letter pointed out.

“Our big fear about kids being over-disciplined is that they stop seeing school as a place where they belong, as an avenue for success for them,” said Steele.

The settlement expunges from students’ records suspension that were in violation of state rules, and calls for diversity training for teachers, students and administrators. The district will also keep discipline records available for ACLU’s review.

And things are already changing, families said.

Superintendent Simpson and three new principals have taken over since after the confrontation between the officer and the students, and they’ve welcomed the changes spelled out in the settlement. Suspensions have gone down significantly, and the district has begun to implement a cultural awareness program, the ACLU said.

“Hopefully things will be different,” Wilson said, “more equal.”

–Associated Press

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