Settlement Approved in Case Alleging School Discrimination

December 11, 2007 12:00 am

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WINNER, SD — A federal judge today entered a consent decree to enforce an agreement between the Winner/Ideal Native American community and the Winner School District that settles a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Native American students by the American Civil Liberties Union. The case, Antoine et al v. Winner School District, charged that the school district disproportionately targeted Native American students for disciplinary action, maintained an educational environment hostile toward Native American families, and forced students to write out confessions for school misconduct to be used in juvenile and criminal prosecutions. The school district denied the allegations in the complaint.

“At long last, we have an agreement — with the full enforcement power of the United States federal courts — that will ensure the fair treatment of all students in our district. Hopefully, this case will set a new standard for the improved treatment of minority students nationwide,” said Lavina Milk, the guardian of the lead named plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“The America we believe in is one where students are not treated differently by teachers, principals, police, prosecutors, or judges because of their race. With today’s settlement we are one step closer to that ideal,” said Catherine Kim, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “From dropout rates to classroom treatment to harsh punishments, the Native American students of the Winner School District have suffered in comparison to their white counterparts. Now that today’s settlement is enforceable, Winner’s students can rest a little easier knowing their rights will be protected.”

“The school district maintained that students were disciplined identically for the same behavior regardless of race. It nevertheless entered into settlement negotiations in order to aviod a protracted, expensive and divisive litigation,” said Donald P. Knudsen, the school district’s attorney. The court’s approval now allows the parties to move forward with implementing the terms of the settlement agreem

The final settlement arose out of a lawsuit filed in March 2006 by ten Native American families with children in the Winner schools. A federal court in South Dakota certified the lawsuit as a class action on behalf of all Native American students in the Winner Middle and High Schools and their families. The school district denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to enter into settlement discussions in order to avoid litigation. The parties submitted the agreement for the federal court’s approval in July of 2007. During a hearing yesterday, U.S. District Judge Charles B. Kornmann underscored the importance of improving educational opportunities and outcomes for Native American students and commended the parties for reaching an agreement. Judge Kornmann approved the agreement and entered a consent decree for its enforcement.

Under the consent decree, the district will enact policies and practices to ensure that the rights of Native American students are not violated and to enrich the educational experience of all students. Among the key terms of the settlement are the following:

  • School officials will not require students to write statements that can be used to prosecute them in juvenile or criminal court;
  • The district will hire a full-time ombudsperson, nominated by the collective Native American community, to serve as a liaison between Native American families and school officials, especially on disciplinary issues;
  • An educational expert will work with school officials and Native American families to set benchmarks on improving Native American graduation rates, reducing levels of suspension and school-based arrests, and improving the overall climate for Native American students, among other goals; the expert will also conduct periodic on-site visits to ensure compliance with the agreement and monitor progress toward the goals;
  • A committee of Native American parents and school officials will review all disciplinary incidents every quarter for racial disparities and, if disparities are found and cannot be explained, recommend policy changes to reduce such disparities;
  • The Interwest Equity Assistance Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, will provide training for Winner students on conflict resolution and training for teachers on unconscious racial bias and educational equity;

The schools will include Native American themes in the mainstream curriculum, in-school activities, and after-school activities. Additionally, the district will offer Native American Culture, History and Language class every year in the high school, taught by a Native American instructor.

The settlement agreement will remain in effect until the district substantially complies with its terms for four consecutive years. The federal district court will have enforcement authority over the agreement during this period.

The families are represented by the ACLU and Dana L. Hanna, an attorney based in Rapid City. Additionally, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council and the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Education Department provided assistance and facilitation. The Winner School District was represented by Gunderson, Palmer, Goodsell & Nelson, LLP, in Rapid City.

A copy of the consent decree is available at:

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