The gate to Chemawa Indian School.

Chemawa Indian School, Oregon’s only federally-run boarding school for Native American students, may soon face a federal investigation at the urging of the state’s U.S. senators.

Rob Manning / OPB

Oregon’s only federally-run boarding school for Native American students may soon face a federal investigation at the urging of the state’s U.S. senators.

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In a pointed letter to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Interior, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats from Oregon, lay out a series of concerns about Chemawa Indian School. The letter highlights numerous problems and questions that have not been adequately addressed, in the senators’ view.

Wyden and Merkley cited multiple previous inquiries, dating back to a 2013 Government Accountability Office review, and a GAO follow-up in 2014, as well as previous Interior Department investigations released in 2015. Wyden and Merkley also point to a five-part investigation by OPB in 2017, which dug into a range of problems, including student health and safety, academic shortcomings, treatment of employees, questionable hiring practices and a lack of financial transparency and outside oversight.

“In response to questions from OPB, the Bureau of Indian Education acknowledged that there is oversight on all the expenditures of school budgets but not detailed financial audits,” the letter said.

Wyden and Merkley tie the school’s difficulties back to student achievement, noting that a July 2015 investigation by the Interior Department inspector general — the same investigating unit the senators want looking at Chemawa again — “determined that ‘the Chemawa Indian School was not properly assessing the academic needs of its students,’ and that the school was ‘unable to effectively prioritize its resources to ensure the successful educational achievement of its student population.’” In their letter, Wyden and Merkley say that the inspector general’s reviews in 2008 and 2014 found “merely ‘adequate’” measures in place to prevent violence at the school, involving staff and students.

Wyden and Merkley are calling for the inspector general investigation after their own efforts left them with what they consider too many unanswered questions. Among the questions the senators’ letter seeks answers to are seemingly basic issues, such as “does Chemawa’s budget receive audits?” and “does the school have a functioning school board?”

It’s not the first time the senators have asked for information that seems like it should be easy to get. In 2019, Merkley had to make a written request for a map of the school’s campus along Interstate 5 in Salem.

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The letter sent to the inspector general on Monday acknowledged that since OPB’s reports on Chemawa in 2017, and in response to the GAO report from five years earlier, the Bureau of Indian Education released its “2018 Strategic Direction” which included a policy to “provide technical assistance to […] high risk schools.” The senators asked if Chemawa is among the schools considered “high risk” given that “our offices have continued to receive complaints about alleged misuse of financial resources at the school.”

The senators’ request of the inspector general concludes with what they would like to be the two main areas of investigation: financial transparency and outside oversight. The letter essentially asks whether Chemawa gets routinely audited, and if not, then it asks “what financial oversight has BIE conducted?”

On outside oversight, the senators directly ask “does Chemawa currently have a functioning school board?” OPB’s reporting had found that Chemawa’s school board had not been consistently operating in recent years, and when a board was in place, its members had not been provided with answers to questions they asked of school administrators. The senators’ letter indicated that Chemawa had two members and was in the process of adding more but the school “could not disclose the names of those individuals.”

Oregon’s congressional delegation has taken several close looks at Chemawa over the last few years, starting with a visit in May 2018, which included representatives from several Oregon tribes. That visit was followed a year later by an emotional and occasionally combative congressional hearing. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, have visited Chemawa more recently, including in 2019, when they emerged to say they felt encouraged that the school was making changes.

Schrader, whose district includes the Chemawa campus, met again with school leaders earlier this month, in part to find out how the federal government could better support the boarding school as it brings students back after the pandemic closed the campus. In an interview with OPB, Schrader said he’d discussed removing “roadblocks” to the school’s operations posed by the constraints of the federal bureaucracy.

While the senators are pushing for a federal investigation after years of inadequate answers, Schrader was focused on the school’s immediate challenges. Schrader said school officials told him they were adding mental health professionals to help support students returning from the pandemic.

His most recent conversation with Chemawa administrators didn’t touch on issues such as school board oversight or academic assessment, which have been flagged as problems through reporting by OPB and in federal reviews. Schrader said the pandemic likely interrupted efforts on those fronts.

“I don’t think we can even evaluate that to be very honest because you remember that was just prior to COVID and so 2020 was gonna be the year that hopefully they got all their [Every Student Succeeds Act] stuff done and supported with state and federal guidelines,” Schrader said.

Schrader said school officials expressed concern to him about trash and the proximity of an encampment of people experiencing homelessness and that he intends to visit campus later this year to check on how things are going.

“I hope to get a better picture at that point and my goal by showing up again in November would be to indicate to [Bureau of Indian Education director Tony] Dearman, and [Chemawa superintendent] Amanda [Ward], and others that we’re still watching and we’re so hopeful the progress is going to be made,” Schrader said.

Students arrived back at the Salem campus last week, a year and a half after COVID-19 closed the school. According to Schrader, the school’s dorms are operating at diminished capacity due to pandemic protocols.

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