Lessons on tribal history, language and culture in development

Representatives with the American Civil Liberties Union and local tribes commended Del Norte County education officials on Thursday for efforts to reduce racial discrimination among Native American students since 2009.

But with Native American students making up a quarter of the suspensions in Del Norte County Unified School District, more work needs to be done, said Jory Steele, a managing attorney for the Education Equity Project of the ACLU of Northern California. Native American students account for 15 percent of the district's overall student population, she said.

"The primary improvements have been a significant reduction in suspension rates in the district over the time we've been here," Steele said. "When we started looking at the data in 2009 there were 6,000 suspensions. In the district's last report there were less than 1,000. That's a major improvement in the district."

The Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees unanimously approved an extension to a five-year settlement agreement with the ACLU. This will allow the district to continue to develop curriculum that teaches the history, culture and language of the Yurok and Tolowa peoples. The new agreement is set to expire in August 2017.

Yurok Tribal members contacted the ACLU in 2006 following a School Board decision to take away grades six, seven and eight at Margaret Keating School in Klamath, Steele said. Tribal members also filed a complaint with the Federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights due to the grade closure.

When the ACLU began to investigate, Steele said she heard allegations of harassment in schools, which included racial slurs such as "savage" and "squaw" being used against students. ACLU investigators also looked at a California Healthy Kids Survey and found a high rate of students reported being harassed. There was also a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions amongst the district's Native American students, Steele said.

"I have crates and boxes of suspension and expulsion data from the district," she said. "We saw Native American students' suspension rates were roughly two times the percentage of the (district's) population."

Since the district entered into the settlement agreement with the ACLU, members of the Yurok Tribe and Smith River Rancheria formed the American Indian Education Advisory Council. Council members and district officials are working to develop the new curriculum, according to Anna Salem, an ACLU policy advocate.

So far, the new third and fourth grade curricula has been developed, Salem said. Now the goal is to implement curricula for fifth, eighth, 11th and 12th grades. She said the extended agreement requires new curricula implemented in all six grades by the end of the second year.

"By the third year all the grades will be implemented," she said. "It'll just be a monitoring and tweaking year."

The extended agreement also calls for professional development to help instructors teach the curricula in a "responsible way," Salem said. It also focuses on issues of discrimination in the classroom. That training will begin in the fall, she said.

As part of that curriculum, one example of the topics that will be covered is Jedediah Smith and his impact on the Yurok and Tolowa people in Del Norte County, said Don Steinruck, co-chair of the American Indian Education Advisory Council.

In February, members of the Council met with teachers and discussed the potential subjects they would focus on, Steinruck said. The fifth-grade teachers wanted to focus on Jed Smith, he said.

"We can extend the lesson out a little bit, broaden it as much as we can, but we still want everyone to understand the impact this person had and what came after him to this area," Steinruck said. "(Smith) just set the pace. He set the trail."

As part of the new curricula, students, depending on their grade level, may have a lesson on tribal government, Steinruck said at a Board meeting in March. The American Indian Movement of the 1960s may be another topic students focus on, he said.

"The reason why I'm doing this is the classroom teacher does not have the time to do it," Steinruck said on Thursday. "We jumped on this as Tolowa people with the Yurok people because we saw that this is something that needs to be done. So I'm doing it with passion, and I will see that it gets done with passion."

At the School Board's April 24 meeting, representatives from the Yurok Tribe, the Resighini Rancheria, Smith River Rancheria and Elk Valley Rancheria presented resolutions from their Councils asking the district to extend the settlement agreement.

"The tribes support this because there's a lot of good stuff in here," said Jim McQuillen, education director for the Yurok Tribe.

Since the school district entered into the settlement agreement with the ACLU, the Klamath community has discussed the possibility of bringing middle school grades back to Margaret Keating. Following two community meetings in February 2013, sixth grade was reintroduced that fall.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.