Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
By KAREN WILKINSON, The Eureka Reporter, May 1 2008
A federal judge recently rejected the Del Norte County Unified School District’s motion to have a suit alleging racial discrimination dismissed, and a new case against the district was filed in state court.
In what’s been described as a modern-day case of assimilation, the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, charges that the school district discriminated against Native American students on the basis of race when it closed grades six through eight at Margaret Keating School in Klamath.
“Historically, Native Americans were bused to boarding schools as a way to assimilate them into white culture,” said ACLU-NC attorney Jory Steele, who argued the motion in federal court. “A lot of people have said this is the modern-day version of that.”
A hearing in front of U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson in April resulted in the rejection of the Del Norte school district’s motion to dismiss the case, Steele said, meaning that it will continue through the court system.
The ACLU-NC also filed a new case against the school district in state court on April 21, alleging that the school grade closure had a greater impact on Native American students than their non-native peers.
“The families have been really persistent, they’ve gone through all sorts of other channels to avoid litigation,” Steele said. “And only when they felt they had no other options, then they filed the lawsuit.”
The allegations in the suit date back to June 9, 2005, when the Del Norte County school district formally decided to close grades six through eight at the school, and to re-assign the students and bus them to Crescent Elk Middle School in Crescent City.
Margaret Keating is located on the Yurok Reservation in Klamath and is the only elementary school where the majority of students are Native American and that provides instruction in the Yurok language.
“The closure has meant that the students, most of whom live on the reservation, must be bused approximately three hours per day, round-trip, to another school,” the ACLU-NC said in a statement.
The district had maintained that doing so was a cost-saving move and pointed to the fact that no schools have been closed in the past few years despite budget issues.
When reached Thursday, school board Vice President Bill Maffett declined to comment and referred the media to Superintendent Jan Moorehouse. “We’re reserving comments because this is such a sensitive situation,” Maffett said. “And we want Jan to be our spokesperson in this regard.”
A representative from Moorehouse’s office referred the media to the district’s attorney on the matter, John Vrieze. When reached, a representative from Vrieze’s office said he was out of town the rest of the week on business.
“The district had several choices that were better and fairer — options that would have saved more money, prevented the need to bus students far from home and not had such a negative impact on Native American students,” Steele said in a statement. “Instead, they chose an option that was discriminatory.”
According to the motion, the board began exploring ways to cut costs in 2004, and formed three “Blue Ribbon” committees to make recommendations to the board. The facilities committee, in its report, concluded that the district would save the most money by closing a school in Crescent City, and recommended closing Pine Grove Elementary School. It also recommended that the board consider closing grades six through eight at the predominantly white Mountain School in Gasquet, and bus the displaced students to Crescent City. The committee lastly concluded the board could save costs by busing students in grades six through eight at Margaret Keating to Crescent Elk Middle School, but noted that doing so would cost more, making this the “least effective cost-saving measure identified in the report,” the motion said.
The board closed grades six through eight at Mountain School eight months after those at the Klamath school were closed.
Prior to the board’s summer 2005 decision, board members met with Pine Grove Elementary parents and later announced it wouldn’t close the school. The board then met with parents at Mountain Elementary and announced it wouldn’t close the middle school grades there either. The board raised the topic of grade closure with Margaret Keating parents at a meeting convened for another purpose, and didn’t keep records or minutes of those meetings.
The complaint alleges there is a long history of discrimination in Del Norte County against Native Americans on the basis of race and/or national origin, both in and outside of schools. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights investigated the district’s decision to close the middle school grades and concluded the board had discriminated against Native American students on the basis of race.
“The lawsuits were filed after parents in the community had exhausted all other avenues of relief, including filing formal complaints with the school district and with the Office of Civil Rights,” the ACLU-NC said in a statement.
“The reason the families are so committed to having the school reopened is the loss of the cultural education activities,” Steele said. “They view that education as essential — as members of the tribe the loss is a real loss for them.”
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
Copyright © klamathbasincrisis.org, 2008, All Rights Reserved