A new legal paper on racial disparities in juvenile justice is laced with searing narratives of wrongs suffered by Native schoolchildren on Montana’s remote and windswept reservations. Law graduate Melina Healey’s study, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline Tragedy on Montana’s American Indian Reservations,” has just appeared in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change.
According to Healey, who got her NYU law degree this past May, the school-to-prison phenomenon has been well documented in poor, minority communities nationwide. However, it’s been generally ignored with respect to Montana’s reservations, where the problem is extreme. “I’m baffled by this,” she said in an interview. “It’s a staggering tragedy.”
Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project said the paper made a valuable contribution by focusing on a population that is frequently left out of the discussion. “Healey documents a confluence of factors that have harmful consequences for Indian children and lead to them being denied the most basic opportunities for educational achievement.
”Stuck in failing public schools in impoverished communities, Montana’s American Indian children face high rates of suspension, expulsion and arrest, with little regard for due process, Healey found. Being pushed out of school means separation from friends and positive routines and, for many youngsters, regular meals. This, in turn, drives not just trouble with the law but also some of the nation’s highest suicide rates, according to Healey. She recounts heartbreaking stories of Montana Native kids who killed themselves, or tried to, after being disciplined at school.
“Healey tells yet another sad story of our school systems failing to meet the needs of our youngest First Americans,” said former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, founder of the Center for Native American Youth, a policy group that advocates for the health, safety and well-being of Indian children. “Our federal government has a trust responsibility to provide these services to Native American children and the fact is, we simply must do better.”