By Lorna Stremcha
When a series of loud bangs echoed down the hallway, I peeked through the window of my classroom door. I could see a number of people standing in the hallway. The Middle School Librarian and two seventh grade teachers appeared to have control of the situation, so I quickly returned my attention back to my students. Interrupted by a booming adolescent male cursing and what sounded like C.V yelling right back I eased into the hallway. An out-of-control boy was kicking trashcans and lockers. Mandy, his tutor was cowering in her wheel chair in the doorway of the Native American tutor center. This particular student had threatened her before and her complaints to the administration had fallen on deaf ears. Mandy sat in silence as she waited for administration. Upon the arrival of the school counselor, the defiant and angry teen was escorted to the office kicking and screaming by Vice Principal B.Z. and Mrs. P.
The fact that she was in a wheelchair made Mandy especially vulnerable and there were those that definitely took advantage of that. Students with an axe to grind knew exactly how to get away their misconduct. Most of the middle school’s sixth, seventh and eighth graders were more than five feet tall, and a few dozen were easily agitated and great opportunists, which erupted into violent physical abuse and repulsive verbal arguments. Some were face–to-face while others opted for the written word utilizing graffiti, notes or social media—ultimately causing emotional distress with tragic consequences. Granted, some came from very tough environments with a great deal of street smarts and they used their misfortune well to get away with their abuses and bullying. This was especially true for certain Native American students when they got into trouble at the school. Before any discipline could be implemented, he or she would threaten to return to the reservation or simply drop out of the district to avoid the consequences. I believe that fear of increasing racial tensions often kept the administration from acting. Perhaps this was a smart move when compared to what is happening in our world today.
In parts of Montana, this happened more than it should. To our astonishment, administration’s response to CV”s case was to place the boy under the supervision of a male tutor. As the days went by, the boy continued to harbor an irrational hatred for his former tutor. He kept threatening to “hurt her” and carved frightening messages into the top of his desk. His new tutor dutifully reported his concerns to the administration. As before, nothing was done. Afraid to work under those conditions CV quit shortly thereafter, but not before giving them a piece of her mind. Then she filed a complaint against the district with the Montana Human Rights Commission.
Shortly thereafter she became another one of the administration’s targets. She was observant and she wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she knew was right. That didn’t make her popular with the administration. At one point they installed a camera in her room. She noticed the non-standard equipment and reported it immediately. To no one’s surprise, the camera was swiftly removed. In response to her complaint to the Montana Human Right’s Bureau the district staff claimed that she was a “fire burner” and was faking her paralysis. Once again, the victim was portrayed as the villain.
Later depositions in my case would reveal a pattern of discrimination. Both Baird and Svenson were heard making fun of disabled students and Native Americans. A young severely-disabled boy became an object of ridicule because he wore a Superman T-shirt. As he struggled to make his way through the crowded hall, trying to get to class on time, their mocking voices could be heard making comments such as “There’s my Superman”.
A favorite term for Native Americans was “feathers”. One tutor reported, “I saw a kid grab hold of Mandy’s wheelchair. The kid wheeled Mandy out of the support center and pushed her into the hallway. Mandy would turn around and come in. The same thing happened again. The kids were laughing and she was obviously upset. She went down to the office and told Mr. Baird.” To no one’s surprise, nothing was done. Mandy wheeled out of the building and in her words, “left no tracks behind.”
Soon after these incidents, a paraprofessional working in the sixth grade wing was subjected to an hour-long rant by an angry parent. Even though they knew she was alone with a hostile visitor, no one came to her rescue. Like Mandy, she was shattered by the hostile environment and quit, but not before her husband let the administration have his two cents.