U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader stood across Interstate 5 from Chemawa Indian School on a hot afternoon last month to brief reporters. They’d just come from the embattled federal boarding school for Native American students, where they’d talked to the school superintendent.
“[I] thought it was a good meeting,” Schrader said.
“I agree with Kurt,” Bonamici added. “This was a very positive meeting today.”
“Good” and “positive” have not been in the vocabulary of Bonamici and Schrader when it comes to Chemawa. And despite those upbeat comments, tribal members and others who have been critical of the school remain eager for evidence of change as the new school year approaches.
The two House members, along with U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, have pushed for changes at Chemawa for nearly two years, since an OPB investigation found problems with student health and safety, academic shortcomings, a lack of financial transparency and a pattern of retaliation against staff who asked questions.
Congressional pressure pinnacled in May, when a Bureau of Indian Affairs official endured tough questioning about federal boarding schools such as Chemawa at a hearing on Capitol Hill. No one from Chemawa, including superintendent Lora Braucher, attended the meeting, which appeared to irritate lawmakers.
“With all due respect, you stated a moment ago that the reason we don’t have supervisors from Chemawa here is because they’re in school, and we just heard … that they’re not in school; they’ve been out of school since May 3rd. Why’d you tell us that?” Schrader demanded, his voice raised.
“It’s my understanding that Lora had a scheduling conflict … ” said Marc Cruz, a deputy assistant secretary.
Before he could finish, Schrader responded over him: “So the bottom line is you don’t know what’s going on, and you’re not telling the committee the honest truth?”
The committee also heard from mothers whose children died either at Chemawa or shortly after leaving campus. Bonamici mentioned two students who died after being thrown out of the school – Flint Tall died in 2011 in South Dakota, and another student died last fall in Wyoming.
“Both died shortly after leaving Chemawa, raising serious alarms about student safety,” Bonamici told her colleagues.
“They were 15 years old.”
After the most recent Congressional visit, though, Schrader emphasized he and Bonamici are on the same side as school leaders.
“We’re not after them – we’re trying to be supportive, just as they are,” Schrader said.
“So it’s been kind of an adversarial relationship to be very honest, or at least a ‘suspicioned’ relationship. Hopefully we’re getting past that.”
Schrader and Bonamici said they’re looking to help school administrators, possibly by streamlining federal regulations, such as employment guidelines that tend to slow hiring at the school. But tribal members responsible for teens in need of a school like Chemawa say they still have problems with Chemawa administrators.
Two Grandsons Kicked Out Of Chemawa
Robert Tillman died in Nov. 2018 – a year after OPB’s series on Chemawa. Like several students profiled in earlier reporting, Tillman was kicked out of Chemawa and died shortly after arriving back home.
Tillman’s grandmother, Lilayne Hereford, lives near where he grew up, on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
“There was about six or seven of them that went up there,” Hereford said of her grandson and Chemawa. “He went up because everyone else was going. And they were all like childhood buddies.”
Hereford said she still doesn't know why her grandson was thrown out of Chemawa. School administrators don't discuss specific students, but sources familiar with Tillman's dismissal say it was drug-related. A coroner's report indicated Tillman had been drinking heavily when he died of exposure. Hereford questions the decision to kick her grandson out given what happened when he came home.
“I think he’d still been alive if he was still there with all those kids that he went there with,” Hereford said.
Hereford sees a pattern of Chemawa administrators kicking out kids, especially from Wyoming. It’s happened to two kids in her family in the last year.
Another of her grandsons, Kaden Hebah, was sent home last spring after getting in a fight and being caught with marijuana possession. Those are common issues at Chemawa, and administrators sometimes have students perform community service as punishment. But Kaden was sent home to Wyoming.
“Where he really wants to go is Chemawa,” Hereford said. “He said he made a lot of friends up there. He was part of the ROTC. He had all really good grades, A's and B's. He got in with the drum group, he got into the extracurricular activities, and I think that's what he really liked.”
Kaden applied to two other off-reservation boarding schools similar to Chemawa. But because he was kicked out of Chemawa, he wasn’t accepted.
At their press conference earlier this month, Bonamici said she asked administrators about students who were sent home, and she was told that most of the disciplinary problems on campus happen in the dorms. Bonamici says she was told there are hearings for students who are suspended.
“They bring in impartial hearings officers to make those decisions about suspensions, and the students are of course eligible to reapply and come back in, and I'm going to follow up on the suspension policy,” Bonamici said.
Hereford said her grandson went from accused to sitting on a plane back to Wyoming in a matter of hours, a few days before the school year ended – without a hearing.
Lack of School Board Oversight
In a regular public school, Hereford could take her grievances to a school board. But Chemawa has not had a consistent school board for years, and when it did, that body had limited power. Bonamici says the role of school board members is going to be different at a boarding school with Native students from across the country.
“They also have to follow federal regulations, so it’s very different,” Bonamici said. "We can't compare the Chemawa school board, for example, with the Beaverton school board or the Salem school board, because they're not people who live in the community, but they're representing the students who are there at Chemawa.”
But Hereford, the grandmother in Wyoming, sees the structure differently. She served on a school board for another off-reservation federal program, the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota. She recalls traveling hundreds of miles to school board meetings to discuss school business, including questionable spending practices by top administrators.
Former Chemawa school board members told OPB they couldn't get school staff to show them budget documents. Hereford said when she was on the school board for Flandreau from the late 1990s until 2007, the board reviewed finances and made personnel decisions. She said when students were kicked out for questionable reasons, the board stepped in.
“Well we put a stop to it,” Hereford said, by forcing out top staff.
“These kids are there, they’re court-ordered. Some have to be there because they're orphans. And it was those kids that were getting kicked out. We put a stop to it."
A spokesperson at the Bureau of Indian Affairs said school boards at the various boarding schools are all structured similarly, and that their roles are “advisory.” However, federal regulations require school boards to weigh in on important decisions, including the selection of top administrators and approval of budgets. Regulations also spell out timelines for the boards of the nation’s off-reservation boarding schools to be part of decisions, such as hiring and firing school superintendents.
Congress And Grandmother: Both Waiting On Chemawa
At the May hearing, members of Congress suggested several legislative fixes to problems at Chemawa and other Bureau of Indian Education schools. They discussed giving school boards more power, creating a “parent ombudsman” to help communicate with families and possibly assigning a special federal investigator for Native American schools. But members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation say they are reluctant to draft legislation as a way to change the school.
“Not yet,” Bonamici told reporters after her latest Chemawa visit this summer. “We don't want to pick away at it; we want to make sure that we're getting all the information we need to craft policy that will be comprehensive and helpful.”
For now, they're waiting on federal officials and school administrators to respond to two demands. They want a detailed and updated map of Chemawa, showing which parts of campus are supervised by which agency. The idea is that it's hard to make improvements on the ground if you don't know who's responsible for which part of that ground.
Members of Congress also have told school administrators they need to tell staff that they are allowed to talk to the delegation or anyone else, about what's happening at the school without fear of retribution. That request appears to have been satisfied last week, according to Schrader's office. "Chemawa Superintendent Braucher emailed all Chemawa staff about the gag order being 'lifted,'" according to an Aug. 30 email from Schrader's communications director Larkin Parker.
"We will continue to follow up with school officials and make sure that these changes remain in place and faculty and staff are aware of their rights," Parker said.
Lilayne Hereford is waiting too – for Chemawa to send her grandson Kaden’s transcript, so that he can enroll in the local high school. She says it’s his only option. After getting kicked out of Chemawa, he has been denied admission at two other federal boarding schools. She said he’s been given conditional permission to return to Chemawa, but not until next spring, leaving Hereford scrambling to find a place that’ll take him, and waiting on a transcript.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect information OPB recently received about the apparent suspension of the "gag order" at Chemawa.