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.

“Let’s figure out how this child can participate with peers in recess—and by someone with some training, perhaps,” Parr said. “There needs to be more training for staff in cultural competency, and not just a one-day class, but learning to understand the history of the tribes and the multigenerational trauma that exists in those communities.”

Treating Native American students with disdain rather than compassion hurts everyone at the school, says Abby Abinanti, a chief judge for the Yurok Tribal Court and a California Superior Court commissioner.

“Certainly for our children it’s horrible, but it’s horrible for all children—the ones directly victimized and the ones who have to watch it,” she said. “This is not what we send our students to school for, and it has to change. I hope that the Office of Civil Rights will sit down with the parties involved and address the issue, and it will stop.”

For children to experience this kind of treatment in elementary school impacts their future educational opportunities, Abinanti says.

“The chances of being successful in the world without having graduated from high school are very slim,” she said. “If you start weeding our kids out of the education system, you’re throwing them under the bus.”

In addition to the attention being given to these issues by the Office of Civil Rights, the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence has also formed an advisory committee specifically to address the unique needs of Native American children.

“We heard testimony about the high levels of violence, including suicide, among Native American children, and we wanted to make sure we had the right experts at the table,” said Robert Listenbee, Jr., the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, who co-chaired the task force. “There was a comment by one person that the question is not whether violence will happen, but when.”

The American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence Task Force is holding a series of public hearings to help make recommendations on policy, and Abinanti was invited to testify at one in Scottsdale, Arizona. She plans to talk about what’s happening at Loleta.

“I think it’s important they’re having these hearings,” Abinanti said. “The federal government has historically played an important role in changing things for people of color.”

Listenbee says testimony about violence Native American children experienced almost brought him to tears. Eric Holder, the attorney general, is determined to do something about this long-standing problem, he says.

“There’s generational trauma that’s passed down from parents to children,” Listenbee said. “It’s not the kind of issue you can deal with in a superficial way. That’s why we’re having these hearings—the public is often not aware of it, and the public needs to know, so they can help us find solutions.” 

This type of scrutiny also needs to be applied at Loleta as the Office of Civil Rights investigates the complaint, says Delia Parr with the California Indian Legal Services.

“Once you focus attention on a problem, you can start to work towards a remedy,” she said. “We have to be looking at these issues.”

It’s important to have an outside agency involved, she says.

“The thing about this that has had the most negative effect on families is that tribes and legal services repeatedly reached out to the school, so they were aware of these issues, but there wasn’t an acknowledgment that something needed to be fixed,” Parr said. “Then it almost seems like this is intentional.”

Parr, like Steele and Harris, hopes that policies can be set in place that will make a real difference for the students.

“The tribes see children as the future, and they’re working so hard toward tribal development, and education is absolutely crucial,” Parr said. “They have to be backed up by the public school system. That’s the piece that’s really missing.”

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer who teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.

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