Oglala Lakota College is proud of its track record of providing opportunities for students to get the education they need to find and hold a job on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the unemployment rate is estimated at 85%.
But OLC President Tom Shortbull, and some college board members and staff, are closing the door to those opportunities for some students, barring them from classes and denying them their rights to due process, students say.
At least four students have been barred from OLC classes. Each of the students the college barred had spoken out about problems. One filed a written complaint about mistreatment by a staff member, while another reported racist remarks and sexual harassment by a faculty member.
Informed sources report that another student has been threatened with a lifetime ban, and that others fear being barred from classes if they speak out about problems at the college.
Shortbull and other college officials have repeatedly violated college policy by refusing to provide the barred students with hearings, they say. Denied due process at the college, three of the students retained legal help. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Court granted them preliminary injunctions, allowing them to attend classes pending a hearing.
The OST Court held that Gilbert Bad Wound, and Charlie and Lisa Smoke, would "suffer irreparable injury" if they could not attend classes, and that there was a "substantial likelihood of Petitioner's success on the merits," essentially meaning that the students' complaints appear to be warranted.
Gilbert Bad Wound was barred from classes at OLC's Pine Ridge College Center after he filed a written complaint against the local Center Director, Evelyn "Sissy" Eagle Bull. The Local Board and OLC President Shortbull refused to deal with the complaint against Eagle Bull, and they barred Bad Wound instead. Shortbull, and Terry Pechota, OLC's attorney, maintained that Bad Wound was not eligible for a hearing.
Mr. Bad Wound and his family tried to get information about why he had been barred, but Ms. Eagle Bull repeatedly refused to provide a copy of Local Board minutes discussing his case. Eagle Bull also refused to provide them to Michael Acosta, Bad Wound's attorney. After Acosta left the college center, Eagle Bull illegally used her authority as Public Safety Review Board member for Pine Ridge District to dispatch a police officer to Acosta's office, telling him and his clients to stay away from the college center they charge.
Mr. Shortbull used similar steam-roller tactics against Charlie and Lisa Smoke, they claim. After barring them from classes based on hearsay from former OLC vice-president John Haas, Shortbull denied the Smokes a hearing and asked the OST Court for a restraining order against them, the couple said. The order was granted but overturned shortly after that, because it was based only on Shortbull's allegation that unnamed students had been verbally assaulted by the Smokes.
Charlie and Lisa Smoke are high academic achievers. OLC moved to bar them from classes only after Charlie Smoke reported to Haas that a faculty member had used racist remarks and was sexually harassing female students. The OST Court reinstated the Smokes on August 31, but OLC vice-president Devonna Lone Wolf persisted in trying to deny the Smokes their rights, they said. Her September 2 memo denied the Smokes their right to use college offices. "When your class is finished you are required to leave OLC grounds. You are not allowed to utilize OLC offices' (phones, etc.), " Lone Wolf wrote.
Students who have been barred have already suffered harm, even though the OST Court has temporarily reinstated them, but without legal assistance, students get nowhere.
Twylla Turney could have graduated with an Associate of Arts Degree in Human Services last semester, (Spring 98) but she was barred from enrollment without explanation, and continues to be barred, she claims. College officials have not provided any reasons for their action, despite repeated written requests from Turney. They have also refused to provide her with a copy of a letter that college officials said was used to bar her from classes.
Both Shortbull, and Ken Stands, the instructor who allegedly wrote the letter, refused to provide Turney with a copy, leaving her in the dark about why she has been barred from classes at the local college center in Wanblee where she lives.
When the Eagle Nest Local Board and Shortbull ignored Ms. Turney's requests for a hearing, she went to the Oglala Sioux Tribe's Education Committee for help. When Ms. Turney told the Committee about her plans to enroll in OLC's college center in Martin, some 50 miles away from her home, Tom Conroy exclaimed that "Banning from one is banning from all," excluding her from any OLC classes Turney says. Besides being the Chair of the OST Education Committee, Conroy is also Chair of the Oglala Lakota College's Board of Trustees. Such overlaps in authority, or conflicts of interest, make it difficult for people to get fair treatment.
Students are apparently not alone in receiving such treatment under Shortbull's presidency. Reliable sources inside the college note that faculty and staff members at OLC have been pressured into resigning. Some have secured legal help in an effort to protect themselves and to secure due process.
In addition to seeking redress of their grievances through tribal court, the barred students are considering a class action suit for damages through federal court.
The failure of OLC to provide due process to students not only violates college policy, but the Indian Civil Rights Act, say legal authorities. Using federal tax dollars to provide services to students, and denying services to some is another violation, they say.
Perhaps most important of all, the behavior of certain OLC employees and board members undermines the Lakota tradition of respect.
The barred students and others are finding their voice in order to reclaim that tradition.