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Educators at Rural School Suspected of Targeting Native American Students for Harassment

California's Department of Education has agreed to investigate allegations of unfair treatment of Native American youth.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Nel via


California’s Humboldt County, a mostly rural forested area that sits on the state’s coastline about 100 miles from the Oregon border, has one of the highest populations of Native Americans in the state—about 6 percent. It is also home to Loleta Elementary School, which sits at the center of contentious litigation regarding the treatment of its Native American students; specifically, whether those students are subjected to harassment based on their race.

So serious are the charges that just one month after the complaint was filed, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent a letter to the plaintiffs declaring it would launch an investigation of the charges. Michael Harris, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, was the recipient of that letter, and he felt both pleased and surprised at its speedy arrival. His center, along with California Indian Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California had filed the complaint, and Harris believes the government’s quick response time likely has to do with the severity of the allegations in the complaint.

“It’s a very quick response. I’ve worked with other advocates who have filed OCR complaints and have not heard for months,” Harris said. “I felt really vindicated, and my interpretation was they could see, as we saw, that there were some serious problems that needed to be addressed.”

Harris said his center and the other law firms involved spent about a year interviewing people and gathering information in the rural Northern California town. The complaints they heard included the charge that Sally Hadden, the superintendent and principal at Loleta Elementary, had pulled a student by the ear and said, “See how red it’s getting?”; that Hadden hit a Native American student on the head with a clipboard so hard those around could hear the crack; that she threatened to physically remove a six-year-old girl with a history of abuse who was hiding under her desk; that Native American students are forced to finish their lunches, including drinking spoiled milk while other children are allowed to throw the drinks out; and that Native American children are suspended or expelled for minor infractions, such as breaking crayons or kicking a ball on the roof. Hadden didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

“What stood out for me in investigating this case and talking to the students and their parents was how palpable the sense was that the Native American students were seen as the 'other,'” Harris said. “They were suspended much more frequently and disciplined much more than the white students.”

Jory Steele, managing attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said the two tribes who filed the complaint, the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria and the Wiyot, have been subjected to extensive historical abuse.

“The Wiyot tribe experienced a massacre where they were so decimated they lost tribal status and had to work hard to get it back,” she said. “Many Native Americans had to send their children to boarding schools where they were beaten for speaking their language. When I and other folks on the team talked to people up there, the massacres and the boarding schools came up very frequently. It adds weight to the importance of trying to change the situation for the students there.”

The hope is that the school will work with the tribes to modify the culture so the school becomes an inviting place for students rather than an oppressive one, says Delia Parr, the directing attorney for California Indian Legal Services, based in the Humboldt County town of Eureka. Parr said she has been to Loleta many times, often for meetings about special education, and in her opinion, school officials don’t have the resources or the training to meet the children’s needs, often leaving them out of compliance with the education code. She highlights the case of the child who was hiding under her desk and threatened with physical removal rather than given an assessment to see if she needed special services, as well as one involving another child with a disability who was forbidden to go to recess—by a janitor at the school.