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Federal probe finds racial disparities in Rapid City schools

School officials agree to make changes with federal oversight

Stewart Huntington
ICT
Native graduates listen to speakers during the May 22, 2024 feather-tying ceremony at Central High School in Rapid City.

A federal investigation of the Rapid City Area School District practices in South Dakota revealed 鈥渄isparities in access鈥 to advanced learning programs and 鈥減ersistent, and statistically significant, disparities in discipline for Native American students compared with white students.鈥

The findings 鈥渞aise concerns regarding the district鈥檚 compliance with its nondiscrimination obligations鈥 under Title VI of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Education鈥檚 Office of Civil Rights.

In response, the district on Wednesday, May 29, signed a voluntary resolution agreement with the Office of Civil Rights that grants open-ended federal oversight of the district as it implements a 23-page plan to ensure its policies, procedures and practices 鈥渄o not discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, or national origin.鈥

The stark portrait of the school district painted by federal officials was not altogether revelatory.

鈥淲e've known this for quite a long time here in our community,鈥 said Dr. Valeriah Big Eagle, who previously served as co-chair of the Rapid City Area Schools Indigenous Education Task Force.

But still, she said, the agreement is an 鈥渙pportunity to make changes for all of our students, especially our Indigenous students.鈥

Big Eagle, a citizen of the Ihanktonwan Oyate, said the district鈥檚 agreement to make a laundry list of changes is a step forward.

鈥淚 will not say that the school district has never done anything wrong when we know this has been an issue. I'm just glad that they have this information now,鈥 she said. 鈥淭hey can move forward in a good way. I will, however, continue to push them and challenge them to do more.鈥

School officials pledged to work hard to make changes.

鈥淭he district remains dedicated to engaging with the community, enhancing relationships with the Native American community, and implementing measures that promote a positive, safe, and nondiscriminatory environment for all students,鈥 Kelsey Parker, the Rapid City Area Schools in-house counsel, said in a statement.

鈥淲e look forward to working collaboratively with (the Office of Civil Rights), our school community, and stakeholders to implement the terms of this agreement and ensure a bright future for all students,鈥 Kelsey said.

The federal investigation was launched following a 2010 complaint filed by parents and community members with the Office of Civil Rights alleging Native students in Rapid City public schools were disciplined at higher rates than their peers and that Indigenous students encountered fewer advanced learning opportunities, such as enrollment in high school Advanced Placement classes.

The resulting agreement, signed by schools Superintendent Nicole Swigart, does not constitute an admission of noncompliance with federal Civil Rights laws by the district but spells out steps it must take:

  • Examine the root causes of racial disparities in the district鈥檚 discipline and advanced learning programs and implement corresponding corrective action plans.
  • Employ a discipline equity supervisor to help the district implement corrective action.
  • Employ an advanced learning coordinator to address the underrepresentation of Native American students in advanced learning programs.
  • Provide training to staff on the revised policies and practices.

Overseeing the agreement鈥檚 implementation will be a new Stakeholder Equity Committee that will include members of the Indigenous Education Task Force. The new body is charged in part with helping the school district draft a corrective action plan to submit to the Office of Civil Rights by November. The committee is then tasked with monitoring the district鈥檚 progress under the corrective action plan.

School board members said they saw a silver lining along with some of the starker findings of the 14-year federal inquiry.

鈥淭his is a way to put what might be our biggest challenge front and center and get us to focus on that,鈥 said school board member Christine Stephenson.

The Department of Education鈥檚 Office of Civil Rights found that Native American students were disproportionately disciplined at higher rates compared to White students across discipline categories.

During the 2021-22 school year, the federal inquiry found that Native students were subjected to discipline referral rates 2.06 times more than White students.

The data for suspensions that school year was even starker, with Native American students referred 4.57 times more than White students for in-school suspensions and 4.83 times more than White students for out-of-school suspensions, according to the investigation.

Furthermore, the Office of Civil Rights found 鈥渘o evidence indicating district administrators examined the disparities themselves or set up any system to evaluate whether discrimination infects district practices.鈥

The report notes that the 鈥渟tatistical significance of the disparities 鈥 and the district鈥檚 decision not to assess the practices for compliance with Title VI (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), raises concern for OCR that discrimination may animate district disciplinary practices.鈥

The Department of Education鈥檚 Office of Civil Rights found that Native American students were disproportionately disciplined at higher rates compared to White students across discipline categories.

During the 2021-22 school year, the federal inquiry found that Native students were subjected to discipline referral rates 2.06 times more than White students.

The data for suspensions that school year was even starker, with Native American students referred 4.57 times more than White students for in-school suspensions and 4.83 times more than White students for out-of-school suspensions, according to the investigation.

Furthermore, the Office of Civil Rights found 鈥渘o evidence indicating district administrators examined the disparities themselves or set up any system to evaluate whether discrimination infects district practices.鈥

The report notes that the 鈥渟tatistical significance of the disparities 鈥 and the district鈥檚 decision not to assess the practices for compliance with Title VI (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), raises concern for OCR that discrimination may animate district disciplinary practices.鈥

鈥淚鈥檝e heard from Indigenous families, and I hear from my Native friends that the students aren't treated equitably,鈥 she said. 鈥淏ut it was so striking and sad to see those facts put forth in a document.

鈥淎nd I as one board member, not as a whole board, I just want the people in the school district and our students to know that they're heard and they are seen and that we need to do better. And the (Office of Civil Rights) feels like we need to do better. And I'm really hopeful that we will do better soon.鈥

That hope was shared widely although some community members found in the Office of Civil Rights reporting some disquieting passages.

The Resolution Agreement was accompanied by a letter to the District that included an account of interviews in 2023 with school district officials 鈥 including the superintendent 鈥 about truancy rates which were higher for Native American students compared to white students. 鈥淭he Superintendent reported that certain Native American tribes, such as the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Tribes, do not commonly value education and inform their students that they do not need to graduate,鈥 Office of Civil Rights investigators wrote. 鈥淎dditionally, she said that the district struggles with what she termed 鈥業ndian Time.鈥 The superintendent explained her meaning by stating that 鈥楴ative Americans view time differently鈥 than other community members so that for instance, 鈥榓rriving two hours late鈥 is common and results in being marked absent.鈥欌

The characterization of entire Native nations undervaluing education and the resorting to broad stereotypes to explain statistical variances in student behavior drew the ire of at least one participant in the Office of Civil Rights Community Listening Sessions conducted as part of its investigation.

鈥淭he message is absolutely wrong,鈥 said Amy Sazue, the executive director of Remembering the Children, a memorial project for children who died at the now-shuttered Rapid City Indian Boarding School. 鈥淚t is something that I would stand against every single time I heard it. It is an unjust and incorrect characterization of an entire community of people.鈥

Asked if she thought the district would be able to make the changes sought by the Office of Civil Rights, Sazue, Sicangu Lakota, was non-committal.

鈥淚 think that enough work will be done on it to look like something has been addressed or done,鈥 she said. 鈥淏ut the hard work, the actual systemic change, I just don't know if the Rapid City School District is capable of it right now.鈥

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