BILLINGS — The Montana Human Rights Bureau in January found “no reasonable cause” to believe that discrimination occurred at a Reed Point High School basketball game. A group of fans from Pryor said they were denied early entry to the game because they are Native American.
The fans, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, filed a subsequent civil complaint in Stillwater County District Court on Monday.
The bureau’s decision means that its investigation did not find enough evidence to support the accusations from the Pryor fans. The case is dismissed by the bureau, but filing a civil suit in district court is an appeal option.
The original complaint, which was supported by the ACLU, accused a Reed Point school employee of telling four Pryor fans waiting outside before the game on Jan. 21, 2017, that “we don’t have any workers yet so we are only letting white people in.”
Complaints were filed on behalf of Ellsworth Goes Ahead, Brandy Goes Ahead, Emerine Whiteplum and Whitney Holds. All four are American Indian.
The school employee was letting in a bus driver for Rapelje when they were accused of making the comment. The employee told bureau investigators that they said they were only letting in “our people.”
A statement from the bus driver, an enrolled member of the Creek Tribe in Oklahoma, said that he didn’t recall the employee saying anything. Both parties agreed that earlier in the day, another school employee said spectators weren’t being let in until workers for the game arrived.
“There is little doubt in this investigator’s mind that (the employee) said something that made Charging Parties believe they were not being let in because of their race,” the investigation’s analysis reads. “However, it is unknown what that may have been. … It makes sense then that (the employee) would have said ‘our people’ but again, that doesn’t overcome what the Charging Parties heard.”
A group of Native American spectators was admitted early by a "cleaning employee" at the school, apparently without knowledge of workers for the game, something the report called “particularly damaging to Charging Parties claim.”
The report is critical of Reed Point Superintendent Mike Ehinger’s response to the situation, saying that a “more responsive” handling of the issue may have avoided a human rights complaint. The school district conducted an investigation that found no basis to claims of discrimination after the accusations were reported to Ehinger.
The complaint in Stillwater County will likely evaluate much of the same evidence collected during the human rights investigation, according to bureau attorney Tim Little. A court of law has some standards the investigation didn’t, like requiring witnesses to testify under oath. The complaint could result in a bench or jury trial.
According to a press release from the ACLU, the complainants are “seeking an order prohibiting discrimination and requiring cultural sensitivity training for the defendants.”
The bureau's decision was not posted online with other decisions because of the appeal to district court, Little said. The Gazette requested the case file from the investigation.