Plan To Shut Indian School Sparks Outcry

By Anne Bridgman — April 11, 1984 14 min read
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The federal government’s decision to close a Utah school that is one of the few remaining boarding schools for American Indians has sparked a legal battle and charges that the closing will place the future of its students--many of whom are dropouts from other public schools--in grave jeopardy.

In an action supported by 46 Indian tribes nationwide, the Ute Indian Tribe will file a motion in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a preliminary injunction to block the scheduled closing of the Intermountain Inter-Tribal School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Brigham City.

Charging that the closing of the school will severely limit the educational opportunities of its 300 students, the Utes are scheduled to file the motion early this week.

At least three other Indian boarding schools--of a total of eight still in existence--have been or are targeted to be closed by the bia for the same reasons--rising costs and declining enrollments.

The conflict in Utah has been described by one Ute official as “the modern-day version of the government stealing the Indians’ land.” But, according to Donald W. Mendez, chairman of the Intermountain Inter-Tribal School Board, “this time, it is the story of the government stealing our education.”

“Closure of that school is not the issue in and of itself,” said Forrest S. Cuch, education-division head for the Ute tribe. “This is one of the major efforts of the bia to get out of the business of educating Indian children. They want to get out of the education business and we don’t want to allow them that luxury.”

Services Threatened

Ute officials maintain that closing the Intermountain school will force students to transfer to schools that do not offer the mental-health services needed by the 300 American Indians who attend Intermountain School. Without those services, argues a researcher who has studied the schools, as many as 90 percent of the students may drop out of school.

Most of the students at the boarding school are public-school dropouts; more than half were sent to the school by juvenile courts or social-service agencies because local programs failed to address their needs, according to Glenn I. Latham, director of the Exceptional Child Center at Utah State University.

But the issue of tribal survival also figures in the dispute. The Ute tribe, which was established by an executive order of President Lincoln in 1861, now has fewer than 1,700 members, and tribal officials contend that inadequate and inappropriate schooling has contributed to high rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the tribe. The Utes are leading the fight to save the school because many members have benefited from its services, according to Mr. Cuch.

Several Ute officials have also alleged that several members of the Utah Congressional delegation agreed to support closing the school in return for a $7-million waterworks project. Spokesmen for Utah members of Congress, however, deny those charges.

Other Injunctions Obtained

In at least two other cases, Indian tribes have obtained injunctions preventing the U.S. Interior Department from closing schools.

In May 1982, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an injunction, at the request of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes of Oklahoma, prohibiting the closure of the Concho Indian School, an elementary school in Concho, Okla., according to James C. Martin, assistant director of the office of Indian educational programs. The school was closed the following year.

During the same year, the Sioux tribe in North Dakota obtained an injunction from the same court prohibiting the closing of the Wahpeton School. That school remains open.

A bill that would require a detailed procedure for closing any bia-funded school was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Dale Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, last month. Scheduled for a hearing by the House Committee on Education and Labor early this week, the bill calls for the bia to “ensure a study of each child’s educational and social needs and guarantee adequate alternative services.” If passed, the bill would affect any school operated by the bia as of Jan. 1, 1984, including Intermountain.

Schools Closed

Intermountain School is one of eight off-reservation boarding schools still in operation in the United States. The schools, known as orbs, were established by the Snyder Act of 1921 to educate Indian youths who did not have suitable day-school educational opportunities in their communities, or who had behavioral or social problems. Few schools were set up under the law until 1974; from 1974 to 1978, the bia operated 15 such schools.

The Intermountain School served as a military hospital in the 1940’s and was converted to an off-reservation residential school for 1,300 to 2,350 Navajo students in 1950, according to a school history. Inter-mountain became multi-tribal in 1974, administered by the bia, with a limit of 800 students.

Students who attend the school, which is fully accredited, must be at least one-quarter Indian and must be 14 to 19 years old. Graduation requirements include the completion of 15.5 units of required coursework, 75 hours of supervised work experience during one semester, and demonstrated functional competency in basic skills or “independent adult functioning,” said school officials.

Between 1974 and 1978, several commissions recommended that the school develop social-service programs to address the needs of Indian students not otherwise being met. The school now has programs geared specifically to deal with drug abuse and dropouts, both significant problems among American Indians.

Consolidation Recommended

In 1978, the U.S. General Accounting Office recommended that the Indian-affairs bureau consolidate its orbs system and close schools that were underused, according to a September 1983 report by the gao From 1978 to 1982, five of the 15 facilities were closed.

Last April, the bia proposed and the Congress approved the closing of four of the remaining 10 orbs by the end of the 1984-85 school year, according to the report. Mount Edgecumbe (Alaska) High School and the Concho Indian School were closed last summer, and Intermountain School and Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, Okla., are scheduled to close at the end of this school year.

“There are no current plans to close any of the remaining seven orbs,” said Mr. Martin of the bia

The Congress appropriated no money for either the Intermountain School or Sequoyah High School for the 1984-85 school year.

Last December, Brigham City received a $200,000 grant to fund a socioeconomic study of how Intermountain School will be used once it is closed. Presented by John W. Fritz, deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, the money will be spent to find alternatives for the use of the property, said Mr. Cuch.

Closing Temporarily Blocked

The bia recommended in 1981 that Intermountain School be closed by the end of the 1982-83 school year. To keep the school open, the Intermountain School Board attempted to pursue a contract with the bia under P.L. 93-638, the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, according to Mr. Cuch. When the bureau did not act on the contract request, Mr. Cuch said, several tribes filed a successful injunction to temporarily block the school’s closing.

In the 1982-83 school year, Intermountain School had a budget of $3,745,450 and enrolled 390 students, a 57-percent decline from the 898 students that were enrolled during the 1978-79 school year, according to the bia

Bureau officials have said the closing of the Intermountain, Mount Edgecombe, and Concho schools will save an estimated $60 million, according to the National Congress of American Indians, an advocacy group for American Indian and Native Alaskan tribes. The recommendation to close the schools earned William D. Bettenberg, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant sec-retary of policy and budget, a $20,000 merit-personnel award, according to the National Congress.

“It is not clear how the Administration arrived at the $60-million figure,” the Congress noted. bia officials declined to comment.

Facts Left Out

The bia has omitted some important facts from its arguments about high costs and declining enrollments, Intermountain board members maintain. The board members point out that enrollment at the school has declined because bia officials in 1982 imposed a 400-student enrollment limit on the school. That limit was imposed, according to Mr. Martin of the bia, because the bureau thought it was inappropriate to begin a freshman class while they were planning to close the school.

Intermountain board members also note that the school has always had a waiting list of students. The enrollment level imposed by the bia also raised the per-pupil cost, the board points out. And the school’s programs designed to serve special needs of Indian students also increase the costs.

“There is ample evidence to show that the bia has manipulated the data and has imposed restrictions on the school to assure an unfavorable image,” a September 1983 issue paper released by the Intermountain school board states.

Lack of Special Services

The major objection voiced by Ute and other tribe members to the closing of the school is that the special services the school provides to Indian students will not be available at the schools to which the students will transfer.

Mr. Latham of Utah State University studied the effects of transferring students from an Indian boarding school to a public school that does not provide special services. “We have found that 91 percent of the student body at Intermountain School is at either moderate or high risk in terms of academic success in virtually any other setting,” Mr. Latham said in an interview.

“Fifty-two percent of the students enrolled at Intermountain are there because they were referred there by the courts or some local jurisdiction because there was no local program to meet their needs,” he said.

Concentration of Problems

Of the students who attend the school, 70 percent have dropped out of the public schools and about half are four or more years below grade level in academic achievement, according to school records. In addition, 53 percent of the students require the intensive residential guidance program, 75 percent have unstable family lives, and 50 percent have family incomes below the poverty level. An additional 12 percent or more are eligible for services for handicapped students.

In the Ute tribe, 60 percent of all deaths are related to alcoholism, according to tribal officials. And the 29-percent dropout rate of American Indians is the highest in the country, along with that of Alaskan Natives, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ study, “High School and Beyond.”

Mental-health services at the school include individual and group counseling, psychological testing and evaluation, a program for unmarried mothers, a family-education unit that includes sex education and prenatal counseling, an anti-shoplifting program, a drug-rehabilitation program, and an intoxicant-education and care center, according to school documents.

Effective Programs

According to school officials, the special programs have been effective. Fifty-four percent of the 1980-81 graduates found employment, 34 percent continued their education, and the other 12 percent joined the military, married, or are unemployed, according to the school board. In addition, the absenteeism rate at the school, they maintain, is below 3 percent.

“Moving already troubled students from the best education, mental-health, and Indian health programs to minimal or nonexistent programs because it is convenient or politically expedient for the bia decreases or eliminates the students’ chances for educational and personal success,” the school board argued in a September 1983 issue paper.

“Students cannot benefit from programs that are nonexistent,” the paper continued. “Neither reservation health services nor other off-reservation boarding schools have yet developed health or education programs for problem youths of the quality that Intermountain School has. Yet, these existing programs, which are successfully contributing to the education and human-development process and are recognized for their high achievement, are about to be destroyed.”

Transfer of Programs

bia and other federal officials who support closing the school have said that some of the programs will be transferred with the students.

The 300 students who attend the school have been given the choice of moving to a private, public, or boarding school, according to bia officials. In addition, federal officials have indicated that three new nonboarding high schools will be built to handle the transferred students. According to Mr. Cuch, most of the students are expected to transfer to Phoenix Indian School in Arizona or to Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif.,--two Indian boarding schools that remain open.

But Mr. Latham of Utah State University contends that the bia plans to close Phoenix Indian School at the end of the 1984-85 school year. The school was originally targeted to be closed by the bia at the end of this school year, but in July 1982, the bureau announced it would not close the school.

“There is some Congressional interest about the possible closure of Phoenix after the completion of Papago and Hopi [schools]” on Indian reservations, said Mr. Martin of the bia The new schools are currently being designed, and Mr. Martin estimated that construction will begin in 1984 or 1985.

Position Changed

The assurance that the programs will be transferred to the schools that the Indian students will attend is the reason that Representative James V. Hansen, Republican of Utah and an initial supporter of keeping the school open, has decided to support closing it, said Kathleen E. Gallegos, his legislative aide.

“The programs were being upgraded [in the schools that would receive the Intermountain students], great strides were being made,” said Ms. Gallegos.

In a letter sent last October to Mr. Mendez, the school-board chairman, Representative Hansen promised to monitor the progress of improving the social-service programs at the two schools to assure they were ready for the students by the 1984-85 school year.

Mr. Mendez responded in a November letter; calling Mr. Hansen’s letter a “serious misunderstanding of the facts,” he pointed out the difficulty of transferring special programs from one school to another.

“You fail to recognize that effective programs are the result of years of development, refinement, and staff expertise,” he wrote. “We would hope you will not allow the bia to close the school until programs are verifiably in place and that the Bureau lives up to its promises of schools on our reservations.”

Mr. Latham of Utah State University agrees that it will be almost impossible to transfer the programs successfully. As an example, he cited an attempt to replicate the vocational-education program at Intermountain School at Phoenix Indian School; $600,000 was allocated for the project. “The budget is now down to $200,000 and nothing has been done,” he said. “They’re transferring programs into oblivion.”

Water Project

David Birch, a former superintendent at Intermountain School who says he was transferred to a data-processing center in Phoenix as a result of his opposition to closing the school, maintains that initially sympathetic Utah Congressmen agreed to vote for closing the school in return for support of the $7-million water-reclamation project in the state.

“Why would the local Congressmen want to close a federal facility” that was providing services, money, and jobs to the citizens, he asked. An agreement was struck, he said, between Representative Hansen and then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt over the water project.

But Mr. Cuch says that “the rumor may not pertain to Representative Hansen because the [water] project is outside his district.”

A spokesman for Mr. Hansen said the allegation was false. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said Ms. Gallegos. “I don’t know where in the world they picked up on that. There’s no connection whatsoever.”

Mr. Cuch said he and other Ute officials have planned to meet with Representative Howard C. Nielson, Republican of Utah, to ask him to oppose closing the school.

“We feel that if one Utah Congressional representative would reverse his position on the school, we could get a Congressional oversight hearing or a Congressional investigation into this matter,” Mr. Cuch said.

But an official in Mr. Nielson’s office said the Congressman does not plan to change his position. “Congressman Nielson’s position is that Congressman Hansen has been working on this issue for a long time and the Intermountain school is in his district. It would be presumptive of Congressman Nielsen to try to step in,” said Robert M. Jeppsen, legislative assistant to Mr. Nielson.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as Plan To Shut Indian School Sparks Outcry


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