The U.S. Department of Education will investigate a discrimination complaint made 18 months ago against the Wolf Point School District. The complaint claims systematic discrimination against American Indian students, according to a lawyer who helped file the complaint in June 2017.
The school district was the subject of stories in the New York Times and ProPublica that highlighted the school district's disparities in academic achievement and discipline rates between white and American Indian students, as well as the claims from a civil rights complaint.
The federal investigation announcement comes a week after the stories were published. One story quoted a federal "senior official" saying the complaint was being evaluated.
A press release from New York University assistant professor Melina Healey, who helped file the complaint, said federal officials would look into the complaint late last week.
Federal officials confirmed that the investigation was opened on Dec. 28 looking at whether the district discriminated against American Indian students in school discipline and on the basis of race and disability by denying students access to appropriate special education services.
A search tool for federal investigations shows two open investigations against the Wolf Point School District that are race-based, but both were opened in January 2018.
The law firm representing the school district pointed to its original response to the complaint:
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"The Wolf Point Public School District is keenly aware of the challenges facing our students and in particular our Native American Students," said a statement attributed to attorney Jeff Weldon.
Attorney Jeana Lervick, who represents the district, said the district was "disappointed" in the national stories and said that student privacy laws prevented the district from addressing situations involving individual students.
"Wolf Point Schools does not discriminate against its students, and works exceptionally hard to ensure educational opportunities for all," she said in an email.
The 46-page complaint filed by the tribal government encompasses a litany of allegations under three main umbrellas: that the district bullies American Indian students to the point of pushing them out of the district; that the district disciplines American Indian students disproportionately more than white students; and that primarily white school administrators and trustees compromise education for American Indian students.
About 70 percent of students in Wolf Point's elementary district are American Indian, while about 60 percent of high school students are. The district, like most Montana schools, has significant academic achievement gaps between white and Indian students.
Office of Civil Rights investigations are uncommon but not exceedingly rare. In Montana, the department has six open discrimination investigations based on race or national origin, 12 based on sex, and 18 based on disability.