Settlement reached in South Dakota student discipline lawsuit 6-18-07

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A settlement has been reached in a class-action lawsuit that alleged the Winner School District discriminated against American Indians by disciplining them more harshly than white students.

The settlement says the school district must take a number of steps aimed at improving graduation rates and reducing levels of suspension and school-based arrests of Indian students and ensuring equal treatment of students.

School district officials, parents who filed the lawsuit and the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the parents of Indian students, announced the settlement.

The lawsuit, filed last year, alleged the school district discriminated against Indian students in disciplining them, was hostile toward Indian families and took statements from students involved in disciplinary matters that were later used to prosecute them in court.

The school district denied any wrongdoing but agreed to settlement talks to avoid a lengthy and expensive legal battle.

“Our goal was to act in the best way possible for all children of this district and move on,” Winner School Board President Rocky Blare said in a written statement. “Ongoing litigation for years would be detrimental to our main goal of educating kids. With this settlement, we have welcomed the opportunity to provide visibility into our disciplinary policies and our cultural diversity.”

ACLU attorney Catherine Kim said Indian students in the district drop out of school, transfer to other districts and are sent to detention facilities at far higher rates than white students. She said she is pleased the Winner School District has agreed to take steps to support Indian students and hopes the district can be a model for other communities with minority students.

“This groundbreaking settlement agreement is a major step toward ensuring that our children have the best educational opportunities available, said Rodney Bordeaux, Rosebud Sioux Tribe president.

The settlement calls for the school district to:

- not require students to write statements that can be used to prosecute them in court.

- hire a full-time ombudsman to serve as a liaison between Indian families and school officials, particularly on disciplinary issues.

- work with an educational expert and Indian families to set benchmarks for improving Indian student graduation rates, reducing levels of suspension and school-based arrests and improving the overall climate for Indian students.

- have a committee of Indian parents and school officials review all disciplinary incidents each quarter for racial disparities and recommend policy changes if problems are found.

- provide training for students on conflict resolution and training for teachers on racial bias and educational equity.

- include Indian themes in mainstream curriculum, school activities and after-school activities, and offer classes in Indian language, culture and history.

Mediation that led to the settlement included Indian families involved in the lawsuit, members of the Winner School Board and school administrators. The Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council and the tribe's Education Department also provided assistance.

The settlement will remain in effect until the district substantially complies with the terms for four consecutive years, and a federal judge will continue to have jurisdiction over the agreement during that time.

The parties in the lawsuit will submit a proposed consent decree to finalize the settlement, and a judge will decide whether to approve it.