A non-profit corporation that helps troubled Indian students filed a suit in federal court Thursday against the Washington County School District, seeking to have three Indian students admitted to public school in St. George.
According to the suit, the school district will not let two Navajo girls and a Navajo boy attend school in the county until the organization that placed them in Washington County homes pays out-of-state tuition for the youngsters.Raindancer Youth Services Inc. - a company licensed by the Utah Division of Youth Corrections to manage the custody of troubled, abused and orphaned Indians - sued the district, superintendent Steven Peterson, members of the Washington County School Board and Utah State Office of Education employee Douglas Bates for violating the constitutional rights of the three Navajos and 35 other Indian children by denying them access to public education.
The Washington County School Board and district officials have not yet received a copies of the suit, said board president Catherine Miles. "I have no comment until I see it."
The trouble began a year ago when Bates wrote a letter to the Washington District saying the district did not have to allow children in Raindancer's custody to attend school, explained Matthew Hilton, attorney for Raindancer and the youngsters.
Bates told the district the state would not pay for the education of the Indian youngsters, Hilton said. So Washington District established a quota at the beginning of 1990, allowing only 32 Indian youngsters from the program to attend public school for the remainder of the school year.
The district demanded that Raindancer pay approximately $42,000 in out-of-state tuition for the youngsters' education, Hilton said. Raindancer refused. The district threatened to sue Raindancer, and the school board voted in August not to allow any more Raindancer youngsters to attend public school without paying out-of-state tuition first.
Raindancer's contract with the federal government does not allow it to use federal funds to pay for public education, Hilton said. So the three youngsters - identified in the suit only by their initials - have not been in school.
M.N. has lived in St. George for two years. He was remanded to the custody of Raindancer by the Family Court of the Navajo Nation in the Judicial District of Shiprock, New Mexico, the suit said. The boy attended public school in St. George last year, but now he spends his days at his St. George foster home trying to supplement what should be a ninth-grade education with the help of foster parents and Raindancer.
M.N. has been active in adolescent music activities and "desires to be associated with the band in the public school system," the suit said.
M.N., like many Raindancer youngsters, is an orphan, Hilton said.
The same Navajo Court sent Y.J. to Raindancer a year ago. She attended sixth grade for the second half of last year. But now she, too, has been barred from school. "She would really like to be back in school again," Hilton said.
The Navajo Court sent B.L. to Raindancer last summer and subsequently declared her a St. George resident. Even though a the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that Indian tribal courts have ultimate authority over tribe members, the school board has ignored the Navajo Court's decision and refused to let B.L. attend ninth grade unless she or Raindancer pay out-of-state tuition, Hilton said.
Raindancer keeps the youngsters involved in behavioral modification programs five to six hours a day, said Raindancer Program Director Kevin Van Gilder.
Raindancer attempted to set up a private school for its youngsters with its federal dollars this fall but found that federal guidelines prohibit the use of that money for education. It can only be used for behavior modification, Van Gilder said.
Raindancer was created by contract with area Indian tribes, including Navajo, Apache, Hopi and Piute, Hilton said. The contract is administered through the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Indian Self Development and Education Assistance Act.
Six Raindancer students living in Arizona have not been barred from public schools there or required to pay out-of-state tuition, Van Gilder said.
The suit asks the U.S. District Court to resolve several complicated issues, including possible discrimination by the district in favor of the Indian placement program sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"There are two homes in St. George that have two Indian foster children - one from the LDS program and one from Raindancer. The child from the LDS program goes to school. The Raindancer youngster can't. We're saying, `Look, enough is enough,' " Hilton said.
According to the suit, "laws of the state of Utah . . . were applied in such a manner as to allow those students formerly residing outside of state boundaries from the Navajo and other tribes placed in the state of Utah by the Social Services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be freely admitted to Utah public schools, while those students from the same tribes, formerly living outside of state boundaries, were placed in the state through non-religious, state-approved agencies, such as the Plaintiff Raindancer Youth Services, are subjected to a refusal of admission without payment of tuition and placed on quota allotments, all of which also serves to violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," the suit said.
The suit asks the court to require the school district to recognize the authority of a tribal court order. It seeks to have the state of Utah apply the federal homeless assistance act to youngsters sent temporarily into the state by court order and have state and federal laws applied evenly to religious and non-religious sponsors of such youngsters.
"If we get all of those, we'll be sitting pretty," Hilton said.
Hilton expects the Navajo Nation to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Raindancer's suit.
Raindancer seeks a preliminary injunction and an expedited hearing to get the youngsters into school as soon as possible. "We hope to have the matter completely resolved by mid-January," he said.