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Bismarck leaders tackle unbalanced treatment of Native American youth

BISMARCK — As Native American juveniles are more likely to be arrested by police or disciplined at school than their white counterparts, a group has formed in Bismarck to overcome such disparity.

"The point is not to blame schools for overrepresentation, not to blame certain racial or ethnic groups, but to sit down and say, 'How do we change outcomes?'" said Bismarck Public Schools' Superintendent Tamara Uselman, a member of the group that includes an advocate for at-risk youth, a mental health provider and officials from law enforcement, juvenile courts and social services.

Group members took a trip last fall to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to gather data on racial and ethnic disparities in Burleigh County. In their research, they discovered imbalances do exist here in the juvenile justice system, as well as within public schools.

The group found that, in 2015, for every white youth arrested in Bismarck, about six Native American youths were arrested. Native American students in Bismarck are far more likely to be disciplined in school, too.

Tami DeCoteau, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma-focused care and is a member of the Bismarck team, said she was not surprised to hear of the disparities.

"(The data) was more of a validation that this is a project that was important and that we needed to make a priority in the state of North Dakota," said DeCoteau, an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. "I think we have a good chance at (reducing disparities), especially with all these people at the table."

The team has devised a plan to reduce these discrepancies, which includes methods for diverting juveniles from detention and becoming more engaged with their families.

Tackling disparity

Cory Pederson, director of Bismarck juvenile court and member of the group, said local agencies, including the Bismarck Police Department, have been working for years to reduce higher rates of arrests among Native American youth. Bismarck and Fargo statistics stood out in a 2009 disproportionate minority contact study conducted by the North Dakota Association of Counties. Since then, an annual study has been undertaken to keep tabs on the statewide disparities.

That first study sparked action on the part of the Bismarck Police Department, which began to delve into the reasons for the imbalance in arrests, according to Luke McKay, a member of the Bismarck team and head of the Bismarck Police Department's Youth Bureau.

The department identified a small number of Native American families and their kids accounted for these citations, and, about 30 percent of the time, the calls came from the children's parents, who requested police intervention. Other calls came in, too, from schools and businesses with about an additional 9 percent generated solely by police contact.

"It's hard for anybody to say we're targeting a culture or a specific population when you know where those calls are coming from," McKay said.

Still, the results from the 2009 study were surprising, and McKay said the police department looked at what it could do to better handle such situations. In June 2015, the department brought trainers to work with school resource officers on how to interact with youth. Such coaching continues with every new officer.

One result of the group's work is the implementation of a ranking system by school resource officers to determine whether a student should be referred to a police youth worker rather than being issued a citation.

Wide-reaching reforms

The Bismarck group has identified other ways to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, which boil down to three areas: family and student engagement, professional training and diversion. Implementation is expected within the school district as soon as this fall.

Because about a third of the incidents were the result of parents calling the cops on their children, McKay said the department's focus has turned to: "How can we empower parents to know what to do instead of having the police show up at their door?"

One of the team's first goals is to engage more with Native American families, students and community members through four annual community events, with collaboration between Bismarck Public Schools, Burleigh County Social Services and YouthWorks.

The school district also will form a group comprised of Native American students at Bismarck High School, which will meet monthly to give input and discuss issues encountered.

Monitoring change

The Bismarck group plans to measure the impact of the changes, as well has monitor the percentage of arrests and incidents of school discipline over the next several years. All group members signed a memorandum of understanding "for commitment to creating a better Bismarck" last month.

"We really are trying to expand this so everybody ... feels as if this is their community — if everyone feels like they have a say in it, I think you'll have more buy-in, but you'll also have a safer place to be," said Pedersen, director of Bismarck juvenile court.

McKay said he is hoping on a response from Native Americans in the community.

"I think that's the main thing: to have Native American people in our community be able to give feedback so that there is more engagement. If there's not any engagement, it's going to be hard to fix any of the problems," he said.