The exchange between Missoula School District administrative team member Mark Walton and Indian Peoples Action (IPA) director Janet Robideau at a meeting Tuesday night seemed like an especially telling one, in light of the purpose of the meeting.
“What do you prefer to be called,” he asked, “Native American, Indian, American Indian, indigenous or something different?”
Robideau sighed and said, “I can only speak for myself, but I feel there are greater problems than worrying about what I’m called. What’s important is that I’m addressed with respect.”
The meeting was convened so the administrative team, minus vacationing Superintendent Mary Vagner, could finally discuss IPA’s June report about improving Missoula schools’ disciplinary policies, parental participation, minority teacher recruitment and cultural competency policies. IPA has been steadily lobbying district administrators and school board members to review their recommendations for the past three months.
Vagner has maintained that before any changes can be made to district policies, IPA’s report must be reviewed by the administrative team, which will then recommend how to proceed.
Amid nervous laughter at times and emotional discussion, administrators asked for clarification on IPA’s recommendations, especially pertaining to discipline.
“The students we interviewed said they were corrected for something without the opportunity to tell their side of the story,” Robideau explained. “The students then felt that when they were defending themselves they got a suspension for defiance of authority.”
One of IPA’s main points was, and remains, the need for students to have a process to follow if they feel they are wronged or punished unfairly. Often, Robideau has held, there is some type of harassment, especially racial, that leads to physical fighting and then disciplinary action.
Carol Meyers, an IPA member and former Title IX administrator for the Missoula district, says Indian parents are also frustrated by what they see as a system that shuts them out.
“Parents are willing to help their children,” she said. “But many are faced with a system that has historically taken our children from us, and that memory is ingrained in some of us.”
“We hear all the time that parents don’t get involved,” Robideau added. “What we have to ask is why? It’s because of discomfort.”
The bottom line, IPA members agreed, is that the Missoula district has the opportunity to make a significant difference in the way Indian students feel about education.
“This is where you get to tread new waters,” Robideau told the administrative team. “Lots of our kids are in the school system, and Missoula can set the pace for the rest of Montana.”
Larry Johnson, assistant superintendent, said the team will report the results of what ultimately seemed like a positive, if tentative, meeting to Vagner.
“We’ll give advice, but it’s up to her. She’s the CEO,” Johnson said.