Tribe settles with Cal school district over discrimination claims

By Juliana Barbassa
Associated Press 9-07

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 September 16th they’d reached a settlement with the Bishop Union Elementary School District designed to end what families claimed was a pattern of discrimination that was driving Paiute children away from the 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 discriminatory way, “there’s always room for improvement,” said Superintendent Barry Simpson.

“We’re going to be taking a look at all our procedures a little more closely,” said Simpson.

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.

There was some fear of potential racially motivated backlashes, said attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

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 that threatened to “kidnap, rape and dismember” Paiute girls in retaliation were found next to the tribe’s daycare center.

Eight months later, in October 2005, when a police officer assigned to patrol Bishop’s middle school confronted a 13-year-old Paiute boy for wearing a bandanna, there was still some residual fear in the community, attorneys said.

Officer Glenn McClinton demanded the bandanna, but the boy didn’t want to hand it over, said the 8th grader’s grandmother, Carolyn Stone, who didn’t want the boy’s name released. It was a gift to Stone from an American Indian dancer, and her grandson had taken it without permission.

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

Other children protested, and soon three American Indian children were also 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 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. “These kids are not troublemakers.”

Although Bishop police officials couldn’t comment on the details, they said the officer was found to have acted within the law.

“His actions were justified, consistent with his training and lawful,” said Lt. Chris Carter.

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

An investigation by the ACLU of the school’s records on suspensions and expulsions from 2000-2006 found that 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 forced some of these students to attend continuation school, meant for students unable to meet the standards of the traditional school system, depriving them of educational opportunities, the ACLU said in a letter to the school’s superintendent dated October 2006.

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

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

Things are already changing, families said.

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.”