Feds to investigate Loleta school; claim alleges discrimination, student abuse

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is launching a formal investigation into allegations of racism and discriminatory treatment of Native American students made against the Loleta Union Elementary School District.

American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California spokesman Will Matthews said the group received a letter from the department this week "informing us of their intention to investigate" the allegations.

"We are pleased to see that the U.S. Department of Education is investigating what we believe to be pervasive physical and verbal abuse on Native American students in Loleta," Matthews said. "It seems to me that the speed from which they responded to our complaint may well be reflective of their higher commitment that all students, especially Native American students, are positioned to succeed to the highest degree possible educationally."

On Dec. 18, the ACLU, National Center for Youth Law and the California Indian Legal Services filed a formal complaint against the Loleta Union Elementary School District to the Department of Education, claiming that district staff members were physically and verbally harassing Native American students, unfairly disciplining Native American students and purposely denying Native American students access to disability and special education assistance.

Many of the allegations were directed toward the school district's superintendent and principal, Sally Hadden. The complaint claimed Hadden has hit students on the head with a clipboard hard enough to produce a sharp cracking sound, kicked students, and grabbed a Native American student by the ear and said, "See how red it gets?"

The report also claims that Hadden referred to a Native American student as a "saltine" because the student "looked white."

Loleta school district officials did not respond to multiple calls for comment before deadline. Hadden did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Michael Harris, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, said the complaints were made on behalf of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria and the Wiyot Tribe Tribal Council of the Table Bluff Rancheria.

"An investigation being opened means the U.S. Department of Education has found some substance to these complaints," Harris said. "I think that in itself is significant. There are many occasions when they don't even open an investigation."

Before filing the complaint, Harris conducted a nearly year-long investigation into both the Loleta Union Elementary School District and Eureka City Schools. Harris said that the Loleta school district will be given an opportunity to respond to the Office of Civil Rights.

"They will ask the district for information, documents, data and will give them the chance to say that the allegations made in our complaints are not true," Harris said. "They'll interview whoever will represent the school district. They'll most likely interview the students that some of the incidents happened to."

Should the investigation find that the allegations are substantiated, Harris said the Department of Education can follow a "couple of possible avenues."

"One is they would give the school district the opportunity to voluntarily make the changes needed to make their policies and practice in compliance with the law," Harris said. "If the district is really recalcitrant and refuses to be cooperative, then some of their federal funding could be in jeopardy. Sometimes they can refer the violations to the U.S. Department of Justice."

Humboldt County Office of Education Superintendent Garry Eagles said his office "is not directly involved in the process," and that the Loleta school district is waiting to be in contact with the Office of Civil Rights.

"(The Office of Civil Rights) is very formal and will spend the appropriate time interviewing the school district," Eagles said. "The process will take a while."

In a letter responding to the complaint, the Office of Civil Rights made clear that the decision to perform an investigation does not mean the allegations have been found to be true.

"Please note that opening the allegation(s) for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merits," the letter read. "During the investigation, (the Office of Civil Rights) is a neutral fact-finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the complainant, the recipient, and other sources, as appropriate."

Matthews said that the ACLU will meet with investigators from the Department of Education by the end of the month.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or whouston@times-standard.com. Follow him on Twitter @Will_S_Houston.

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