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Native lawmakers seek accountability after racial misconduct

Mary Steurer
North Dakota Monitor

Two Native American lawmakers voiced frustrations Wednesday with repeated reports of racist behavior at school events and urged more accountability from North Dakota education officials.

The legislators — Rep. Jayme Davis, D-Rolette, and Rep. Lisa Finley-DeVille, D-Mandaree — had no shortage of examples to draw from during a presentation to the Legislature’s Tribal and State Relations Committee, which met at Spirit Lake Nation.

The discussion followed a recent incident involving a Native student who captured video of his peers mocking Native song and dance traditions at Flasher’s prom on April 20. In an interview with The Bismarck Tribune, the father of the student said that faculty and parents at the dance did not stop the behavior. Ultimately, a group of Native students walked out.

Finley-DeVille said that during a girls basketball game between Mandaree and Wilton-Wing, a cheer coach and a parent recently witnessed students using derogatory language. In this instance, too, she said nothing was done about the taunting.

The representative said she then notified the North Dakota High School Activities Association, which regulates high school athletics, about what happened, but never received a response.

She’s now seeking recourse through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, she said.

“Right now they’re in the process of interviewing the people that were involved,” Finley-DeVille said of the federal agency.

In February, a group of students was accused of mocking Native players while dressed up as cowboys at a basketball game between St. Mary’s Central High School and the Mandan Braves. Administrators from the schools said the students were just dressing up for a “theme night,” according to The Bismarck Tribune.

Little seems to have changed since January 2023, when two Native American students on the Bismarck High School boys basketball team were targeted with racist language and taunting at a game in Jamestown, Davis and Finley-DeVille noted.

Like Finley-DeVille, the students’ parents have also filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights regarding the January 2023 incident.

Reports of similar behavior continue despite education officials’ claims they’re taking steps to address the climate, the lawmakers said.

Brian Bubach, associate director of the North Dakota High School Activities Association, said during the meeting that the federal Family Educational Rights and Practices Act makes disciplinary action that schools take against kids confidential.

That means when disciplinary action is taken against kids who make racist remarks at school events, schools aren’t allowed to say anything about it, Bubach said.

He also outlined several actions the association has taken to curb insensitive and racist behavior by students, including:

  • Producing a public service announcement about sportsmanship, which is shown at the association’s state tournaments.
  • Establishing a Sportsmanship and Citizenship Committee to recommend ways to improve the climate at school sports events.
  • Creating a grant for schools that host a Sportsmanship and Fan Behavior Workshop for their students.
  • Including a provision in the association’s code of conduct stipulating that anyone who uses racial slurs will be removed from the facility.

The association’s board of directors also added a seat specifically for a school administrator who is either a member of a federally recognized tribe or serves at a school with at least 50% Native American student body. Wayne Fox, superintendent of White Shield, was recently elected to this position and will start serving on the board this summer, Bubach said.

Both Finley-DeVille and Davis questioned whether the High School Activities Association’s behavioral policies are being enforced. They said they haven’t noticed a meaningful improvement in students’ conduct.

“We don’t want our grandchildren coming to your grandchildren seeing this, saying the same thing on this issue,” Davis said. “We are not going to allow this to be kicked down the line for decades of more dialogue.”

Davis made the following recommendations to the Tribal and State Relations Committee:

  • Clarify the roles of various state education agencies and officials when it comes to setting expectations for spectators at school events, including consequences for violating such expectations.
  • Require all public school faculty, staff, and students to go through cultural sensitivity and bystander intervention training.
  • Implement a zero-tolerance policy for displays of racist behavior and discrimination during public school activities.
  • Encourage students, faculty and staff to say something when they see racism and discrimination and help support those subjected to it.
  • Implement ways to report and address incidents of racism and discrimination.
  • Involve parents and the community in public schools’ efforts to address racism in school events and promote local diversity programs.
  • Promote diversity within school leadership and sports teams.

Davis also brought up a bill passed during the 2021 legislative session requiring all elementary and secondary schools in North Dakota to teach Native American history. She advocated for passing additional legislation next year to fully implement and fund the program.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, asked if any of the reported racist incidents would be grounds for prosecution under state discrimination or hate crimes laws.

“Would a state’s attorney maybe bring a charge against these individuals based on our present statutes?” Mathern asked after Davis and Finley-DeVille’s presentations.

Mathern suggested that school educators should face punishment for not adequately addressing racist behavior by students.

“Is it possible that the conduct that should be challenged here is the adults in the room and the people that are not taking the action?” Mathern asked.

Committee Chairman Rep. Zac Ista, D-Grand Forks, questioned whether the High Schools Activities Association could track and publish anonymized data about racist conduct by students at school events and what disciplinary action was taken to address it.

“The lack of public accountability is something like the lack of deterrence,” Ista said. “When students across the state don’t see anything is happening, the assumption is nothing is happening.”

This article was first published in the North Dakota Monitor.

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