Hoeven Convenes Hearing on School Safety in Indian Country

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May 16, 2018

WASHINGTON – Senator John Hoeven (R-ND), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, today convened an oversight hearing titled “Protecting the Next Generation: Safety and Security at Bureau of Indian Education Schools.”

“All students deserve a safe and secure learning environment, and it is this committee’s responsibility to take a comprehensive look at the safety and security needs of schools in Indian Country,” said Hoeven. “Over the past decade, the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General has done a series of reports on preventing school violence, improving emergency preparedness, and strengthening employee background checks at BIE schools. Many schools were found to have high staff turnover, no emergency action plan, and faulty infrastructure such as inadequate fencing, unlockable doors, and inadequate surveillance systems… Congress and the administration must continue to work together to ensure safer environments for Indian children.”

Today’s hearing dovetails with Hoeven’s work to strengthen public safety and security in tribal communities, particularly for Native youth. In April 2017, Hoeven chaired a North Dakota field hearing on Native youth safety and the implementation of the Native American Children’s Safety Act, which the senator authored and introduced to improve the safety of the tribal foster care system. The law requires background checks for all adults who reside in a foster home, who move into a foster home after a child’s placement, or who work in a foster care institution. Hoeven also chaired two oversight hearings, in May and September of last year, to examine the administration’s efforts to address Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendations for high-risk Indian education programs.

The hearing featured testimony from Tony Dearman, director of the Bureau of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of the Interior; Cecelia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition; and Gary Lujan, director of Trust Land and Security for Santa Fe Indian School.

For more information on their testimonies click here.

Senator Hoeven’s full remarks:

“Today the committee will receive testimony on safety and security at Bureau of Indian Education schools and facilities.

“The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) oversees approximately 47,000 students in 169 schools and 14 dormitories on or near 63 Indian reservations in 23 states.

“In my home state of North Dakota, there are 13 BIE-funded schools.

“Our hearing today is focused on ‘Protecting the next generation: safety and security at BIE schools.’ All students deserve a safe and secure learning environment, and it is this committee’s responsibility to take a comprehensive look at the safety and security needs of schools in Indian Country.

“Over the past decade, the Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General (OIG) has done a series of reports on preventing school violence and improving emergency preparedness in BIE schools.

“A 2008 OIG report found that many BIE schools are ‘dangerously unprepared to prevent violence and ensure the safety of students and staff.’ Many BIE schools were found to have high staff turnover, no emergency action plan, and faulty infrastructure, such as inadequate fencing, unlockable doors, and inadequate surveillance systems.

“In fact, some BIE schools could not complete a lock-down drill when OIG staff was on-site. These drills are commonplace and used in multiple emergencies, including having an active shooter on or near campus.

“More recently, in its February 2018 report, the OIG found that the BIE was not completing background checks on employees who work with children. Furthermore, the report found a backlog of reinvestigations on current employees.

“These failures were exactly what the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act, passed by Congress in 1990, intended to avoid. Reinvestigations are supposed to happen every five years. Since many schools have not completed recurring background checks, crimes committed after being hired may go undetected. The OIG report concludes the backlog will only increase without further guidance from BIE leadership.

“In the same report, the OIG also suggested that more oversight over tribally-controlled schools, which account for nearly two-thirds of BIE schools, might be needed. Under current law, tribally-controlled schools are allowed to follow their own unique background check system, as long as it is ‘no less stringent’ than what is required for the BIE. However, there have been multiple cases of substandard background checks being performed at these schools. More than this, in one instance, OIG found that background checks had been abandoned altogether.

“The safety of our Native American children is a top priority for me and this committee. In 2016, the President signed into law a bill which I authored and introduced, the Native American Children’s Safety Act. This legislation has worked to improve the safety of the tribal foster care system by requiring background checks on all adults living in a potential foster home.

“Homes and schools need to be safe places for our youth. No child or student should experience violence, especially in the places where they should be nurtured and educated.

“Congress and the administration must continue to work together to ensure safer environments for Indian children. We hope to hear today how BIE and tribally-controlled schools are making progress in modernizing their emergency and violence prevention protocols to protect Indian children.”

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