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Members of Oregon’s Congressional Delegation Continue to Demand Answers Surrounding Chemawa Indian School

Congressman Kurt Schrader (OR-05), with Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), and Peter DeFazio (OR-04), sent a series of letters demanding answers to questions that remain unresolved around the management of Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. Last fall, following an investigative report by Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), the Members sent a series of initial questions to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior. A response to their letter came at the end of April, but left many of their questions unanswered. In May, Reps. Schrader and Bonamici and Senators Wyden and Merkley visited the school, meeting with school administrators, Director of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) Tony Dearman, and six of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon.

The Members wrote: “We are heartened by the willingness Director Dearman and Chemawa administrators expressed to work with us. However, even with your written response dated April 16, 2018, and [the May 3rd] meeting [at the school], many questions and concerns remain.”

The Members outlined 14 detailed questions for Indian Affairs that have remained unanswered, ranging from processes and policies to funding and financial oversight to the physical facilities and student wellbeing to the academic curriculum at the school. They also sent letters to the Department of Education inquiring about the withholding of Title I funding from BIE, and to Indian Health Services raising concerns about the health and safety of students at Chemawa and asking questions about health care practices and communication between the health care facilities and the school.

Additionally, in response to concerns that have been raised around retaliation against whistleblowers at the school, the Members today called on Indian Affairs to allow staff at Chemawa to speak freely to the delegation, writing: “In our [May 3rd] meeting, we were told that the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (Indian Affairs) has a policy prohibiting direct communication between the Congressional delegation and Chemawa and BIE officials, which complicates productive and meaningful communication. We request that this policy be changed to allow BIE administrators and staff to speak freely with Members of Congress, which would make legislation to do so unnecessary.”

The Members sent three letters:

  1. to John Tahsuda III, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior;
  2. to Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the Department of Education; and
  3. to Michael D. Weahkee, Director of Indian Health Services (IHS) within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Chemawa, a Native American boarding school in Salem, Oregon, that draws students from across the country and primarily from the Western states, has been part of Oregon’s community since 1880 and has called Salem home since 1885. The school was established to teach Native American youth a variety of trades including farming, animal husbandry and other vocational skills beneficial to reservation life and culture. Over the years, the school has progressed to provide a high school education to Native students, while maintaining an environment that promotes Native American identity and tribal heritage.

OPB’s five-part investigation, which aired last fall, uncovered a web of problems plaguing the school, including tragic student deaths, a lack of support for students, poor academic results, blowback against whistleblowers, allegations of nepotism, and an overall concerning lack of transparency.

Read all three of the letters below.

 

The Honorable John Tahsuda III

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

U.S. Department of the Interior

1849 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20240

 

Dear Mr. Tahsuda,

 

On May 3, 2018, we held a meeting at Chemawa with Director of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) Tony Dearman, Chemawa Superintendent Lora Braucher, several Chemawa administrators, and tribal leaders from seven of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon. Our discussions were wide-ranging and covered many of the concerns raised in a letter we wrote to you in November 2017.

 

We are heartened by the willingness Director Dearman and Chemawa administrators expressed to work with us. However, even with your written response dated April 16, 2018, and this meeting, many questions and concerns remain. In an effort to keep the conversation moving in a positive direction, we request that you allow staff at Chemawa as well as staff at BIE to speak freely with us. In the meantime, we request your timely response to the following questions:

 

  1. In our meeting, we were told that the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (Indian Affairs) has a policy prohibiting direct communication between the Congressional delegation and Chemawa and BIE officials, which complicates productive and meaningful communication. We request that this policy be changed to allow BIE administrators and staff to speak freely with Members of Congress, which would make legislation to do so unnecessary.

 

  1. The response dated April 16, 2018, from Indian Affairs referenced a system of “chain-of-command” procedures to resolve staff complaints at the lowest possible level. In detail, please describe these chain-of-command procedures for addressing complaints made by staff.
    1. How does this system address complaints about direct supervisors?
    2. Is there a process for staff to report issues to BIE superiors outside of the school if a staffer feels their concern was not properly honored through the chain-of-command?

 

  1. The April 16 response also described an annual staff survey and a thrice-yearly school climate/improvement survey for staff and students to provide input and report concerns.
    1. What are the key areas of concern that arise from these assessments?
    2. What does the school do to address these areas of concern?
  2. We request a detailed copy of Chemawa’s most recent school budget.

 

  1. What is the annual revenue of the student fund, comprising of outside income from business ventures on the school’s land?
    1. How is the money used?
    2. Who has oversight over it?

 

  1. It is our understanding that there are no written audit records of Chemawa’s finances.
    1. Is this in accordance with Indian Affairs regulations for the management of federal funds?
    2. How is financial oversight of Chemawa’s funds conducted?

 

  1. It is also our understanding that the majority of purchases and acquisitions for Chemawa go through Indian Affairs, causing delays and inefficiencies.
    1. What is the procurement protocol for food and supplies at Chemawa?
    2. How can this be simplified and expedited?

 

  1. We are concerned about the maintenance of Chemawa’s old, historic campus. A September 2016 report by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General (OIG) found systemic facility deficiencies at BIE schools, endangering student health and safety.
    1. How are these deficiencies being addressed, specifically at Chemawa?
    2. What is the estimated cost of the necessary renovations and maintenance of the Chemawa campus?
    3. Is this the responsibility of BIE or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)?

 

  1. The response from Indian Affairs stated that Chemawa has established a trimester schedule, as opposed to a semester schedule, to help students who arrive with credit deficiencies gain additional credits.
    1. Is this standard practice at BIE schools?
    2. Have you analyzed the success of this move to accelerated trimester-length curricula, in contrast to more traditional semester-length classes?

 

  1. What changes to the recruitment process can be implemented to increase Native American teachers at Chemawa?

 

  1. Please describe the policies and procedures to train teachers and support staff to meet the mental health, behavioral, legal, and academic needs of the students. How does this training acknowledge the unique historical trauma experienced by Native American communities?

 

  1. What is the current staff vacancy rate at Chemawa?  

 

  1. We received a list of current Chemawa school board members, their tribal membership, and their term dates. According to this list and the most recent available student data, the school board is not representative of the description we were given in Indian Affairs’ response to our initial letter: comprising of members from the top five tribes with the highest student membership at Chemawa, appointed to staggered terms.
    1. Please explain why the current school board is not reflective of this description.
    2. What is BIE doing in the anticipation of all five board members terms ending on August 30, 2018?
    3. Please also describe the school board’s role, authority, and responsibilities.

 

  1. What is BIE policy for the expression of tribal religions, traditions, and customs at Indian schools, particularly those with diverse student bodies like Chemawa where 84 tribes are represented among the student body? The letter from Indian Affairs referenced a writing and cultural cluster credit required for all Chemawa students – what is the curriculum for this, and how does the school determine what tribal customs are included?

 

We support Chemawa’s mission to provide opportunities for success to Native high school students from across the country, and their focus on academic and cultural education, college readiness, and workforce training. We look forward to working with you, the Bureau of Indian Education, the staff and students at Chemawa, and our tribal leaders and thank you for your attention to our questions.

 

Click for a PDF of the letter to Indian Affairs.

 

 

 

The Honorable Betsy DeVos

Secretary

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Ave., S.W.

Washington, DC 20202

 

Dear Secretary DeVos:

 

We write today regarding the Department of Education’s (“Department”) decision to withhold the Bureau of Indian Education’s (BIE) fiscal year 2017-2018 Title I, Part A (Title I) funding. 

 

As part of the federal trust responsibility to American Indians, the BIE has a duty to provide American Indian children with a high-quality education that honors tribal cultures and traditions. According to the National Indian Education Association, “the federal trust responsibility includes a fiduciary obligation to provide parity in access to all American Indian and Alaska Native students, regardless of where they attend school.”[1]

 

Currently, BIE supports 183 elementary and secondary schools and dormitories in 23 states. In addition to funding from the Department of Interior, BIE receives funding from the Department in accordance with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Under ESEA, Title I funding is allocated to schools and school districts to help low-income students succeed in K-12 education and beyond. This funding is a vital resource to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for more than 40,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children attending BIE schools, including students at Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon.

 

In April 2018, the Department announced a tribal consultation regarding the BIE’s oversight and administration of federal programs funded through the Department. The Department did not publish notice of the consultation in the Federal Register, as required.[2] BIE was not in attendance and was not included in the planning of the consultation.[3] In addition, the announcement for this consultation stated that the Department is withholding $1.6 million in Title I funding because the BIE missed the October 2, 2017 deadline for the ESSA negotiated rulemaking committee.[4]

 


On October 26, 2017, the BIE completed the required action by submitting the names of the nominees for the negotiated rulemaking committee.[5] Further, on April 17, 2018, the BIE announced the proposed members to form the negotiated rulemaking committee.[6] The Department, however, continues to withhold BIE’s Title I funding.

 

The Department should be working with the BIE to adhere to the federal trust responsibility to provide all American Indian students the opportunity to learn and achieve academic success. We are concerned that the withholding of BIE’s Title I funding will affect the BIE’s ability to provide a high-quality education to American Indian students. In Oregon, American Indian students face many education challenges, including low graduation rates, low standardized test scores, and a widening achievement gap.[7] Additionally, we are also concerned about the Department’s lack of communication and consultation with the BIE and tribal leaders. To address our concerns, we request your response to the following questions: 

 

  1. Why is the Department continuing to withhold the BIE’s Title I funding?
  2. How can the Department work with the BIE to meet the federal requirements of the Title I program?
  3. How has the Department engaged with BIE representatives on the tribal consultation process?
  4. How is the Department working to strengthen consultation with BIE and tribal leaders to deliver federal resources and programs to American Indian students?

 

Thank you for your prompt attention to this issue; we look forward to hearing from you.
 

Click for a PDF of the letter to the Department of Education.

 

 

 

Michael D. Weahkee, Director

Department of Health and Human Services

Indian Health Service

5600 Fishers Lane

Rockville, MD 20857

 

Dear Director Weahkee:

 

On May 3, 2018, we held a meeting at Chemawa Indian School with Director of Indian Education, Tony Dearman, Chemawa administrators, and tribal leaders from seven of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon.  A number of issues were discussed, including the health and safety of Chemawa students.

 

As you are likely aware, there have been two student deaths on campus in the last fifteen years and a number of other health and safety incidents. Our understanding is that Chemawa administrators feel like they lack the necessary health information about the students to keep them safe and healthy on campus.  Because Indian Health Services’ Western Oregon Service Unit is housed at Chemawa and is the primary source of healthcare for students, collaboration with IHS is critical. To this end, our offices would like to ask the following questions: 

 

  • How can Indian Health Services’ administration help Chemawa improve the health, safety, and well-being of the students that attend the school and reside on campus?
  • Are there healthcare supports that other Tribal Schools receive that could assist Chemawa?
  • Are there medical, mental health, or substance use screening tools that Chemawa could utilize to improve health and safety?
  • What policies are in place regarding the sharing of student medical information with Chemawa administrators, particularly those in charge of residential services and acting in loco parentis?
  • What processes or policies have other Tribal schools implemented that have been successful?

 

We believe that Chemawa Indian School wants to improve the health and well-being of their students and we support them in this effort.  We look forward to working with you, the staff and students at Chemawa, and our tribal leaders as we work toward this goal together.  Thank you for your attention to our questions, we look forward to your response.

 

Click for a PDF of the letter to Health and Human Services.

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[5] Ibid