Complaint alleges racial discrimination

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

During a public forum in Billings, Meg Singer, left, with the Montana ACLU, introduced Brandy and Elsworth GoesAhead.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana has filed a discrimination complaint to the Montana Human Rights Bureau on behalf of four Native Americans who allege that they were denied admission to a high school basketball game while white fans were being admitted.

“The ACLU stands with Indigenous communities around the state to push back against this very harmful conduct,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of ACLU of Montana, in a news release. “The Pryor Four are remarkably courageous for taking a stand against racism, and we look forward to vindicating their right to be free from discrimination.”

The Pryor Four refers to complainants who allege that they arrived early on Jan. 21 for a high school basketball game between Reed Point and Pryor public schools. The Reed Point co-athletic director, the complaint says, told them, “We don’t have any workers yet, so we are only letting white people in.” Meanwhile, white community members from Reed Point were allowed into the gym, the complaint says.

The complainants are Elsworth and Brandy GoesAhead of Billings, Emerine Whiteplume of Pryor and Whitney Holds of Crow Agency. Named as respondents are Mike Ehinger, superintendent of the Reed Point School District, and Teresa Bare, co-athletic director at Reed Point.

The complaint first became public in February at the Native American Race Relations and Healing Lecture Series in Billings. In a forum covered by Last Best News, the GoesAheads described the incident to Meg Singer, the ACLU of Montana’s new indigenous justice outreach coordinator.

“I couldn’t begin to tell you how heavy that statement was weighing on me,” Elsworth GoesAhead said at the time. “It consumed me every waking moment.”

The ACLU’s news release said it sought a response from the school district. “Rather than respond directly to the Pryor Four,” the news release said, “one Reed Point Administrator posted a statement on the School’s Facebook page, implying that he did not believe the incident actually occurred, and shaming the Pryor Four for contacting the ACLU of Montana.”

Reed Point High School’s Facebook page on Monday showed a message saying “This content isn’t available right now.” Neither Ehinger nor Bare could be reached immediately for comment on Monday, but Ehinger said in a February email that the alleged racist statement “would be completely out of character for the staff member and completely inconsistent with the experience I have had with the staff member.”

He said of the alleged racist statement, “I believe this is what these parents believe they heard. However, I do not believe my staff member said that.” He said that only players and staff members, including a Native American team bus driver, were allowed in more than an hour before game time.

Ehinger concluded, “Racism is terrible and something we must work together to wipe out. Working together means that all sides must be heard from before people’s reputations are damaged. I hope that we can all recognize this for the misunderstanding it is and move back to the stable, welcoming relations.”

The complaint was less conciliatory, alleging that school district officials acted in an unlawful and discriminatory manner.

“Their actions were intended to embarrass us and subject us to personal humiliation, and have caused us personal harm,” the complaint says.

The Human Rights Bureau has 180 days to investigate the complaint, the ACLU’s news release said. If the Bureau finds reasonable cause to believe the complaint is valid, a settlement is sought. It reconciliation fails, the case can go to a contested hearing.

UPDATE: In an email message late Monday, Reed Point Superintendent Mike Ehinger said that the school district’s position remains consistent with the email he released in February.

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