In past years, Native American students have been disproportionately expelled from local schools when compared to their white peers.
Despite making up about a third of the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school district’s total student body, statistics reveal that 67 percent of natives, compared to 25 percent of whites, with discipline issues were also subsequently referred to law enforcement. Approximately 400 Native American students are enrolled in Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 schools.
Concerns over school discipline bubbled up during a two-hour discussion Tuesday, Oct. 22, when the district held its annual Indian Policies and Procedures (IPP) meeting. Soft-spoken Ute Mountain Council member Juanita Plentyholes voiced concerns over the lack of school counselors throughout the school system. That shortfall, she said, ultimately injures the students.
The district currently employs less than a handful of school counselors.
“It’s a disgrace,” admitted school superintendent Alex Carter. “There’s nothing I’d like more than to have a full-time counselor at each of our schools. It’s a big problem.”
The Montezuma-Cortez Middle School is the only institution in the district with a full-time counselor for each grade level. Mesa Elementary doesn’t have any counselors.
“When you cut budgets, you cut support staff,” Carter said. “Counselors are some of the first to go, and it’s always a disaster.”
“Instead of a student who shows up with trauma going to see a counselor, they instead go to algebra,” he said. “You never know what a counselor may have prevented until they leave.”
During the 2011-2012 school year, the district expelled 32 students. Last year, those numbers dropped 75 percent, a vast improvement, Carter argued. Stating new school administrators have been directed to use expulsion as a last resort. Of those expelled, records reveal that Native American students were disproportionately impacted.
“Expulsions used to be viewed as an easy solution, but often times they are the wrong solution, and they lead to decreased academic performance,” Carter said.
Outgoing Ute chairman Gary Hayes urged the district to inform the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council when disciplinary incidents arose inside the schools. Armed with that information, he said the tribe could better work with parents to possibly subside future problems.
“We want an opportunity to address these issues,” Hayes said.
Often times in the past, Hayes said Ute students and parents not only felt disciplinary issues were one-sided, but they also believed that their voices were silenced and not taken seriously.
“It’s easy to suspend a student, but that doesn’t solve the problem,” he added.
To help offset the lack of school counselors, Hayes said the tribe would search for funding at both the state and federal levels. He also asked the district to help facilitate evaluation measures that could identify potential early childhood disability problems in order to reduce future disciplinary conflicts.
“If there are ways we can support each other, then we need to do it,” Hayes said. “We have to stop pointing fingers and work together.”
Hayes said he was very appreciative of Carter’s attempts to bridge the gap between the school and the tribe. By Carter attending Tribal Council meetings, Hayes said that demonstrates a level of respect that he has for all students in Montezuma County.
“Diversity is the strength of our nation, and diversity should be the strength of our county,” Hayes said. “In order for that diversity to work, we have to have respect for one another.”
In addition to respect, Plentyholes added that tribal members must continue to evolve and realize the value of an education. Generations of Utes have long held that teaching life skills, such as raising sheep or making pottery, were more important than teaching children to read and write, she said.
“Reading, writing and math: these things are important for our young people to survive,” Plentyholes said. “Slowly, we’re starting to realize the importance of that change.”
Of the natives enrolled in the local school district, about half are Navajos and about 40 percent are from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
A special meeting held every October, the IPP is designed to discuss participation of Native American children in school programs and activities. Other topics addressed at Tuesday’s meeting include academic performance gaps, attendance measures, graduation rates and funding issues.