Approximately 50 American Indian students who walked out of Union High School Wednesday said they did so because they are tired of being singled out for discipline by teachers and administrators and tired of listening to the racial taunts of other students.
Those same students spent a second day away from classes Thursday while school administrators, student representatives and Ute tribal officials attempted to hammer out solutions to perceived problems.The students demonstrated peacefully outside the school and said they plan to continue their walkout until Union High administrators implement a realistic, corrective course of action.
Group spokesperson Michael Natchees said the Native American students feel they've been subjected to inequality at the school for years, but tensions came to a head Monday when a fight between an Indian and non-Indian resulted in the Indian being expelled from school, while the white student who allegedly egged on the confrontation with racial remarks was allowed to stay in school.
"The reason we are out here is that Native American and all minority students are being discriminated against. It's been building and building. It's not something that just started," Natchees explained.
April Black said long before the walkout was planned, Indian students had tried to talk to school officials to tell them about incidents of discrimination, but it seemed nothing was done.
"Everyone is tired of the Indians being pointed out as the problem. We tried to talk to administrators, and all they tell us is `all right, all right,' but nothing is done," she said. "We plan to stay out here and protest until something is done."
In a meeting Wednesday afternoon between demonstrating students, their parents, tribal education representatives and Union administrators, principal Lloyd Burton explained the school's action in the incident that sparked the walkout.
"A teacher came out and two boys were having an argument. She stepped between them and one boy reached around the teacher to punch the other student. That's all we know for certain. The two boys have completely different stories," said Burton.
Simply arguing, he explained, is not grounds for expulsion; however, assaulting another person is.
Native American students and their parents, though, felt the way the incident was handled magnified the difference in the way Indians and non-Indians are treated at the school.
Another complaint of Native American students is the negative way they perceive they are being treated by some teachers in class. Some non-Indians too spoke up during the three-hour meeting to verify those claims.
The meeting did result in a start in breaking down the sometimes subtle, sometimes flagrant walls of discrimination Native American students feel they face at Union High.
"These attitudes can be changed, not overnight, but over time," Maxine Natchees, a former Ute Tribe business committee member, said. "Maybe what we talk about over the dinner table affects this. We need to be aware of this as a community.
"I think the fighting is just a symptom of what's going on here. There is something deeper."
Irene Hansen, director of the Duchesne County Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed. "The solution is not coming up with better rules for fighting. The solution is not to fight . . . you don't have to agree on everything, but you can gain mutual respect."
Burton told those gathered that money has already been budgeted to send teachers to training workshops to better educate them on equal treatment of all students, and Natchees is scheduled to address a faculty meeting next week to open lines of communication between the Union staff and Native American students.
Burton also promised to take action on documented cases where teachers have made racial remarks to students, and he said plans are in the works for the creation of a presentation on the importance of cooperation and acceptance to be developed by both Indian and non-Indian students in a joint effort.
He also said the administration is open to the formation of a committee to come up with possible solutions to the problem of racial tensions at the school.
The 138 Native American students at Union account for 10 percent of the school's population.