Consent Decree is Over; High Praise Given to School District

benchmark committee

By Dan Bechtold, Editor

Better attendance, better graduation rates and overall better culture within the Winner School District is a result of the consent decree.  The consent decree, which has been a part of the Winner School District for 11 years officially ended May 23.  The final meeting of the benchmark committee was held in Winner on May 17 with members of the American Civil Liberties Union attending.

The ACLU says a lot of the credit to the conclusion to the consent decree goes to Supt. Bruce Carrier who has been in Winner for six years.  “We have come a long ways in six years in a lot of different areas and it is all positive,” said Carrier.
The superintendent is retiring on June 1. “My hope is that things we initiated,” he said.

The amended consent decree resulted from the original class action lawsuit that was filed against the Winner School District on March 24, 2006. The action was taken by the ACLU to improve conditions for Native American students in the Winner School District. The amended consent decree was effective Nov. 4, 2014.

A lot of the changes helped meet the benchmarks outlined in the amended consent decree.  “Did we need a need a consent decree to provide a bus to housing to bring students to school?” Carrier asked. There were 48 students to pick up and Carrier said it was only logical to have bus for them.  The honor song at graduation was another change and he said this honors ALL our graduates.

“The biggest change was the change in the culture at the school When I first came here I could not believe the lack of discipline. The first thing I did was get the discipline in order and set our expectations that we treat all students fairly and consistently no matter their color,” he said.

Carrier said he has kept the expectations high.

The Winner Advocate interviewed the two principal members of the ACLU and the federal monitor at last Wednesday’s meeting.  Abner Oakes of Washington, D.C. served as the federal monitor. He explained the way the consent decree was written there needed to be a person to oversee how the district was doing in accordance to the decree.

Oakes said his duties were to oversee the consent decree and the various benchmarks to monitor what the district was doing and to look at the data and reporting coming out of the school district and to make sure the data and reporting was meeting the benchmarks.

Oakes has high praise for the Winner School District. “Winner can be held up as an example of what effective leadership and really thoughtful staff can do to right the ship,” he said.

Oakes explained the staff really bought into the vision that Carrier had. “Given their thoughtfulness, energy, creativity it is really remarkable the strides they have made for the Native American students and all students,” added Oakes.  “It is a powerful example of what can happen in a school district with that kind of energy and hard work.”

“I think they are a model case. What this school district has done is what any school district in the country can look to for an example of best practices in this kind of work,” noted the federal monitor.

Oakes said there is still hard work to be done.

“The thing that is most impressive about what the team at Winner has done is the number of systems they have put into place that don’t necessarily count on people but are already a part of the fabric of the school district. So while someone might retire or leave the school district what is more important are the systems that are in place and they will continue to live on. It is clear to me that these systems are well ingrained into the day to day business of the school district.”

Also talking about the consent decree was Courtney Bowie of ACLU South Dakota. She worked for the ACLU racial justice department in New York City before transiting to work with South Dakota ACLU in 2015. She had worked with the case in New York and continued to cover it when she moved.

Bowie said the school district has exceeded all our expectations. “Winner has turned this around in a way that is rare. It is the only success story in education litigation anywhere in the country,” she said.

Bowie pointed out most of the time when a case like this is brought the school district resists and you end up in court, the community becomes divided and the outcome for kids does not improve.

“Winner brought in a really wonderful leader in Mr. Carrier and had really good people on the ground that were integrated into the thought process of how to achieve better outcomes together. It has been wonderful and surprising,” said Bowie.

She said graduation rates of Native American students are higher and also their participation in extracurricular activities is much higher. When the case started the range of Native Americans in extracurricular activities was in the 20 percent range for the high school and now this has jumped to 75 percent. Bowie says this is wonderful.

“I have to commend the leadership of the school district, teachers for coming up with a plan and making things better.”
Bowie notes she knows Carrier would down play his role in this whole matter but she says it hard to explain what he has done and how important he was to this case. “He said from the very beginning we are going to provide a good education for every student in the district. We realized that he was a child-centered educator and that he cares that students are educated. If there were things he could do to encourage Native American students he would do it.”

She said he made sure his style infiltrated his entire staff.

Bowie noted that Carrier is a brass tacks kind of guy. He said give me a list of things we need to do and we will do it.
“We trusted he was really trying to make an improvement,” she said.

Stephen Pevar is senior counsel for ACLU from Hartford, Conn. He has been with this case since it started in 2006. He has been with the ACLU for 40 years and prior to that was legal aid on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in the early 1970’s.

Pevar gave a time line on how this case started and also commented on how it turned out.

He explained the ACLU was contacted around 2004 by families complaining about the discrimination in the Winner School District. There had been a U.S. Department of Education decree against the school district. They asked the school to make improvements and start sending in reports to show they were complying with the requirements.

The ACLU got copies of the reports and the families were saying what the school was saying was not accurate.

The ACLU had a meeting with the Department of Education in Kansas City and went over the documents. The DOE was not going to do anything with this case said Pevar.

He noted the ACLU then had to make a decision whether they wanted to file suit or let it go. “We decided to file suit. It took us a year to get all of our ducks in a row and get all the documents,” he said.

In 2006, the ACLU filed the lawsuit. Pevar said when it looked like both sides were headed to trial the court suggested both sides try to come up with a settlement. This resulted in a marathon meeting in Sioux Falls around 2009 before federal magistrate John Simko.

The result was a settlement and what is known as the original consent decree.  “We saw some improvement in some areas and and in others we saw none,” said Pevar.  He added that the ACLU threatened the school district with a contempt action.

Pevar noted the two years prior to hiring Bruce Carrier was not a good time.

“Finally, the school board hires Carrier and we have a meeting. Pevar says the first thing Carrier said was “Trust me.” The superintendent outline things he was going to do.  Pevar said the ACLU decided they would trust the new Winner superintendent.  “It was just the best decision anyone made,” Pevar said of the school hiring Carrier. “He did everything he said he would do and this case is a model success story and it has been so wonderful to be associated with this case.”

Pevar said he wishes Winner the best. He says this conclusion is a win win for the entire community. “There is a better school district here. They are ahead of the state average. Winner has it figured out.  “I am proud to have been involved in this case and extremely grateful to the commitment the Winner community made to improving the school district.”

Mike Calhoon, chairman of the Winner School Board, said Carrier is the instrument in providing the leadership for this settlement. Calhoon says he is proud of the work the school district has accomplished.

Carrier said the benchmark committee had a good laugh at their final meeting when Carrier explained meeting Mike Calhoon for the first time. According to Carrier, Calhoon told him “We hired you to get us out of the consent decree.”
“I said No. You hired me to run a good school district,” said Carrier.

When he had his first conversations with the ACLU they said “this is what you have to do to get out of the consent decree.”

Carrier again said, “No, my job is to run a good school and that will get us out of he consent decree.”
Carrier noted the final meeting on May 17 went very well.

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