By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
Ten local children represented by the American Civil Liberties Union have sued the Del Norte County Unified School District in federal court over the 2005 decision to move middle school grades out of Margaret Keating Elementary School in Klamath.
Filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, the lawsuit charges racial discrimination because of students' Native American backgrounds. The lawsuit seeks to reopen the sixth, seventh and eighth grades with qualified teachers and lessons on Native American culture, language and history at the Klamath school.
The June 2005 school board decision forced the mostly Native American middle school student population to travel more than a half-hour on a winding bus route to Crescent Elk Middle School in Crescent City, starting that school year in September, according to the lawsuit. The move lengthened Klamath area students' school days and took them away from cultural and traditional Native American activities, the lawsuit states.
The move also took students from the cultural lessons, at Margaret Keating School, that included a model Yurok village, traditionally built canoes, a Yurok language instructor and local community members who lead activities at the school.
"No other school in the District has facilities or a faculty similarly equipped and providing for such instruction in and awareness and preservation of Native American culture, history, and pride," the lawsuit states.
Citing a history of discrimination against Native Americans in the community, the class action lawsuit seeks to cover any Native American children in the county who could have, either now or in the future, attended middle school at Margaret Keating the only school to teach those grades in Klamath.
But district Superintendent Jan Moorehouse said the board's decision aimed to give middle school students at Margaret Keating an equal education.
The three grade levels shared a classroom and a teacher at Margaret Keating.
Students in those grades need specialized teachers in different subjects in order to meet state standards, Moorehouse said. That challenge proved too great for most teachers, while getting a single teacher good enough to adequately teach all of those subjects proved too challenging for the district, Moorehouse said.
"The most skilled senior teachers won't raise their hand to go and do that," said Moorehouse, who is listed in the lawsuit.
The move also let the students take part in more extracurricular activities that Crescent Elk offers, Moorehouse said. And the district tried to ease the way for the shifted students. An extra bus service takes them back to Klamath so that they don't need to wait for high school students to finish class before riding home.
By the second semester of their first year at Crescent Elk, the district had provided a Yurok language teacher. Officials also track the students' achievement, attendance and participation.
"Most of the kids have done a real good job of making the transition," Moorehouse said.
The plaintiffs' attorney did not return phone calls for comment.
The lawsuit also claims that the school board failed to adequately notify and involve parents in the Klamath community and failed to keep adequate records of meetings on the issue. The decision to move the grades also failed to save money, a key reason that the district created a task force charged with outlining recommendations for cost-cutting measures to the board.
The board had the option to use or dismiss recommendations from that advisory body, Moorehouse said.
The board rejected that group's recommendation to close Pine Grove School because of expected growth, with talk at the time of Home Depot's new local store, expansion plans at Pelican Bay State Prison and a development project at Elk Valley Rancheria, she said.
"It just didn't seem wise to close an in-town school," Moorehouse said.
School board president Faith Crist referred questions on the lawsuit to Moorehouse.
"I don't want to comment on it," Crist said.
Bill Maffett, vice president of the school board, also declined to comment.
"We're going to convene and discuss how and what we want to say," Maffett said.
School board member Tom Cochran recalled his support in closing the middle school grades at Margaret Keating as stemming partly from teachers' support of the proposal.
"The schools are for all the children of Del Norte County, not just for the Yuroks," Cochran said. "I have never distinguished between any of the ethnic groups."