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Gambling Violence Spurs 2 Mohawk Schools To Close

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An armed standoff between a militant sect of Mohawk Indians and the New York state police over gambling on the St. Regis Mohawk reservation has forced school officials to relocate 300 Mohawk students to a neighboring district.

The standoff has also prompted the temporary suspension of classes at a private alternative school on the reservation that emphasizes Mohawk culture.

"Most of the families now are keeping their children close by them,'' said Margie Skidder, a Mohawk and the director of the alternative school, the 10-year-old Akwesasne Freedom School.

And officials in the public-school district that serves the reservation said it has been largely left to them to act as a "stabilizing influence" for youngsters who must live in the midst of a dangerous and chaotic situation.

Two Killed in Shootings

The two schools were closed this month after two Mohawks were shot to death in violence related to a dispute over whether casino gambling should be allowed to continue on the 21,000-acre reservation.

In response to the killings, American and Canadian officials sealed off the reservation, which straddles the St. Lawrence River. An armed truce prevailed last week as Mohawks and state officials met to negotiate a settlement.

No teachers or students had been injured as of late last week, but "the entire community has been ravaged by this situation," said Annemarie FitzRandolph, the assistant superintendent for instruction at the Salmon River Central School District.

The shootings followed an incident in late April in which the Mohawk Sovereign Security Force, known more commonly as the Warrior Society, stormed roadblocks set up by "traditional" residents of the St. Regis reservation who oppose casinos on the reservation.

The Warrior Society, a paramilitary group, insist that they are defending the sovereignty of their reservation against intervention from federal and state officials who might try to close the lucrative casinos that have opened in recent years.

Supporters argue that the casinos provide jobs and bolster the reservation economy.

But many Mohawks, including some educators, argue that the lure of steady wages in the casinos entices young Mohawks to drop out of school.

'A Safe, Neutral Place'

The Salmon River district, which includes 780 Mohawk children among its 1,700 students, earlier this month relocated the 300 students who attend the St. Regis Mohawk School to a facility in neighboring Massena Central School District.

The St. Regis Mohawk School, a reservation school, is not actually on the reservation, but on land just over its border.

"However," said Deborah Cunningham, the temporary manager of the Native American Indian education unit of the New York State Department of Education, "the violence and the distress up there is so severe that those children have all been relocated."

Ms. FitzRandolph said about 200 of the 300 children enrolled at the St. Regis school continue to attend classes.

Ms. FitzRandoplh said the Salmon River district has developed an elaborate transportation plan that includes a "periphery of bus stops" around the reservation to circumvent the roadblocks.

The district has also implemented a temporary "latchkey" program, which operates from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M., so parents, "as they go off to work, if they can get off the reservation, can leave their children in safety," Ms. FitzRandolph said.

Ms. Cunningham said the state is considering waiving standardized tests for St. Regis students and is arranging for the district to make up the several days that the school was closed during the height of the violence.

"The children have been able to keep their arguments pretty much away from the school," Ms. FitzRandolph said. "All of them have been able to agree on the need for a safe, neutral place, and the school seems to be that place."

Robert Jaeger, Salmon River's superintendent, said that he expected the St. Regis School to reopen this week.

Disrupted lives

Still, most observers agree, life is far from normal for the Mohawk children.

"We have children of Warriors who very much subscribe to the activities of that group," Ms. FitzRandolph said.

Some younger children, she said, have taken to playing "roadblock and Warrior" during recess.

And, she added, when she filled in for an absent kindergarten teacher in the days immediately following the April violence, students "wanted to know whether I was pro- or anti-[gambling]."

Ms. Skidder of the alternative school said the state crackdown has instilled a wartime wariness in many Mohawk parents.

But, she said, despite the danger that has closed the Freedom School, parents continue to pick up assignments from their children's teachers and help their children study at home.

"We're struggling to provide the best education we can," she said. "And we'll do that until they feel safe enough to bring their children back to school."

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