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Navajos Charge Bias in Schools

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    SHIPROCK— Members of the state Legislature's Indian Affairs Committee came to the auditorium of Tse Bit' Ai Middle School on Thursday because of months of complaints that the local school district is failing to provide adequate bilingual education to Navajo students.
    But as seven members of the committee sat on the stage listening to hours of complaints from parents of students who attend schools in the Central Consolidated School District, a picture emerged of much deeper differences.
    "Ethnocentric," said Hoskie Benally. "We feel that's how we're being viewed and treated."
    "Brown skin versus non-Navajo skin," said Shiprock Chapter president Duane "Chili" Yazzie, "that is what the situation is looking like."
    "Here is a fence," said Randy Roberts, the father of students in the Naschitti schools. "Here we are the parents on one side and the school on the other side."
    About 92 percent of the 7,000 students in the Central Consolidated School District are Navajo. The district spans the off-reservation community of Kirtland, west of Farmington, and 14 Navajo chapters.
    Members of the Indian Affairs Committee came to Shiprock to listen to complaints committee members had received through letters and phone calls and testimony at committee meetings in other Navajo communities.
    Dissatisfaction in the community began to grow a year ago when school board president Randy Manning said at an Indian Education Committee meeting that bilingual education should be put off until Navajo children in failing schools learn English and begin performing well on standardized tests.
    Manning did not attend Thursday's meeting.
    But committee chairman Sen. Leonard Tsosie, D-Crownpoint, put school superintendent Linda Besett, two of her assistant superintendents and the district's Indian education coordinator on one side of the stage and invited committee members and citizens in the audience to comment and ask questions.
    "Please be cordial to each other. Let's not speak ill of each other," he suggested several times.
A lack of data
    Tsosie was surprised when Besett told him she could not provide bilingual testing data because it doesn't exist. He said he wanted the district to be able to show him whether their bilingual efforts were working.
    "What I'm hearing kind of scares me," Tsosie said. "Three million dollars is a lot of money, and we should be able to show something for it. I think the parents and the taxpayers are saying they want accountability."
    Despite not having testing data, Besett defended the district's bilingual efforts, saying that each of the district's 17 schools has bilingual language instruction and that the district is encouraging teachers to become certified as bilingual instructors and testers by offering stipends of $500 and $1,000 each year.
    "We recognize the importance of respecting the Navajo language and culture," Besett said.
    She also defended a decision to dissolve the district's Indian Education Committee, composed of Navajo parents and chapter representatives, and replace it with three committees, one to handle each of the three federal funding sources specifically for Indian education.
    Several members of the dissolved committee spoke angrily at the hearing, saying that taking their positions away without their consent showed disrespect.
Feeling disrespected
    Kaibah Begay, a parent from Shiprock and a former member of the Indian Education Committee, said she feels that Navajo parents are not respected by the district administration.
    Larry Emerson of Hogback said the committee reorganization was a tactic to divide the Navajo community.
    Sen. John Pinto, D-Tohatchi, told Besett to look at Navajo parents as an important resource.
    "I urge you to work with your Navajo parents," he said. "Work with them, sit down with them, listen to them."
    Tsosie suggested that, because federal law does not require the committee to be split into three, or to remain one or even to exist, that the district should work out the committee arrangements with the community.
    "Talk under a piñon tree or over a bologna sandwich and work this out," he said.
    Hard feelings remained, however.
    Yazzie, the Shiprock Chapter president, said residents are contemplating a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations. And he said the Denver district office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights intends to hold a fact-finding hearing in Shiprock soon.
    Rep. James Taylor, D-Albuquerque, suggested that the group also consider contacting the U.S. Department of Justice if its members believe they can make a case that their children are being educated poorly because of their race.
    "When I see a lot of white people calling the shots in a district that is Navajo, I wonder," he said.