Last March, the Chamberlain School Board received a letter from the King (as in Martin Luther King. Jr.) Center for Nonviolent Social Change asking the board to recognize the ongoing request of many of its constituents to include a Lakota honor song in its high school graduation ceremony. Long-time Chamberlain resident and Indian rights advocate James Cadwell asked the Board for an opportunity to discuss that letter publicly at its April meeting. Chamberlain superintendent Deb Johnson responded thus:

Jim,

You will be placed on the April 14 school board agenda under the 'delegation' portion to address the topic: Resolution Recognizing District-Wide Cultural Competence (7/12/10). You will be granted five minutes to present comments to the board. Please note that the honor song will not be addressed or discussed... [Supt. Deb Johnson, e-mail to James Cadwell, Chamberlain School District, 2014.04.10].

Ah, the administrative passive voice, a sure sign someone is saying something unpleasant that she doesn't want to own.

The Mitchell Daily Republic called the banning of discussion of the honor song unconstitutional. James Cadwell calls the speech ban a violation of his civil rights, and in July, he submitted a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights:

6. Describe the discrimination: On what basis were you discriminated against?

Race; retaliation—I received a letter from superintendent Debra Johnson of the Chamberlain public schools that I would not be allowed to participate in the Chamberlain school board's meeting because I wanted to talk about the Native American honor song and the letter of support that was sent for the honor song from the Martin Luther King center in Atlanta, Georgia. I was also told by the school board president Rebecca Reimer that the honor song issue is a dead issue and we will not be talking about it anymore.

...8. What would you like the institution to do as a result of your complaint?

Follow their own bylaws and allow everyone to speak openly about their concerns with school policy. Resend the motion and change the bylaws back to allowing a subject to be discussed more than one time. This came about at the exact time the denial was given for further discussion of the honor song. And remove the change in length of time that was additionally imposed as a result of the request to further discuss the honor song. There currently are no Native American people serving on the school board, The time allowed for input was 10 minutes and has now been reduced to 5 minutes unless approved by the school board, as no Native American peers serve on the board this has never happened. I have seen many non-native people exceed the 5 minute rule without consequences being imposed. I however have been held to the 5 minute rule with a stop watch. Nearly 40% of the students in this school are Native American [James Cadwell, text submitted in support of civil rights complaint to U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, July 2014].

This complaint has bite because it speaks the one language that every school board understands—money:

OCR is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), 42 U.S.C. §2000d, and its implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 100. Title VI prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from the Department from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

As a recipient of Federal financial assistance from the Department, the District is subject to Title VI [Joshua Douglass, supervisory attorney, Office of Civil Rights, letter to James Cadwell, 2014.09.03].

The Chamberlain school district receives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in Federal Impact Aid as compensation for the large number of American Indian students from families living on federal, non-tax-generating property. According to the board's June 23 minutes, as of May 31, the district had a balance of $2.66 million in its Impact Aid account.

If the OCR finds Chamberlain is violating civil rights by stifling discussion of the Lakota honor song, it can order the board to remedy the situation or lose that valuable federal funding.The OCR acts on the authority of Title VI and federal dollars. A ruling on this one point would say to Chamberlain that it has been acting in ways that could cause it to lose a big chunk of federal dollars. Thanks to the cowardly misers we send to Pierre, Chamberlain and other school districts can't afford to lose a penny. If the OCR rules in favor of Cadwell on his complaint, it will hang a sword of Dollarcles over the Chamberlain school board's heads... a sword sharpened by Republicans themselves.

The Chamberlain school board could render this complaint and this threat to its federal funding moot with six simple words: "Mr. Cadwell, the floor is yours." They could let him speak at length about the King letter, the honor song, and civil rights. They wouldn't even have to respond, just listen. Listening isn't that hard... unless it's an invitation to a conversation that you don't want to have.