Carol Moran spent all she could spare on new school clothes for her 15-year-old daughter. Then she found out a new dress code had been imposed at the junior high school that serves the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Moran, who walks with a cane and survives on welfare in one of South Dakota's most impoverished regions, said buying a whole new set of clothes is out of the question. Her daughter, Kyann, already has been sent home twice for violating the dress code since school started two weeks ago.
"It was just like a slap in the face," Moran said.
Unexpected school expenses can stress any parent. But for many with students in the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte School District, finding gas money or a ride to an affordable store can prove all but impossible, much less paying for the clothes if they get there.
The Cheyenne River Sioux reservation covers Dewey and Ziebach counties, which encompass 4,265 square miles — an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. About 8,000 residents live among the rolling, grass-covered prairie of north central South Dakota.
More than half of Ziebach County and 38 percent of Dewey County lived in poverty in 2005, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The nearest discount store, such as Wal-Mart or Kmart, is about 90 miles away in the state capital of Pierre. Commercial centers in Rapid City and Bismarck are more than twice as far.
Moran and other parents have joined the tribe in a federal lawsuit seeking to block the school district from enforcing the dress code, which requires students to wear black, white or tan shirts, pants, skirts or shorts. Administrators say it is intended to avoid gang violence. An Aberdeen judge has said he might hold an initial hearing this week.
The school is run by a public board organized under state laws and one organized under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education. The lawsuit argues the dress code violates federal regulations requiring such schools consult with tribes and parents of American Indian children in developing programs and policies.
District: Code will alleviate gang violence
Tom Van Norman, the tribe's attorney, said the dress code is not only a hardship for struggling parents but also an impediment to educating the children who are taken out of class and sent home or placed in a time-out room.
The dress code was publicized in the local weekly newspaper earlier in the summer, but many parents did not learn of it until receiving a packet of information about eight days before school started, Van Norman said. Classes started Aug. 27 and the tribe sued Sept. 1.
Two top school administrators declined to comment on the lawsuit or the dress code. But one of them, Bureau of Indian Education Supervisor Nadine Eastman, explained the dress code in a letter published Aug. 6 in the local newspaper, the West River Eagle.
"The purpose of the Uniform Dress Code is primarily to alleviate much of the gang-related violence in the school," Eastman wrote. "Many of our Junior High students wear gang-affiliated colors to school daily. Secondarily, we hope that an increase in safety will increase our academics for all students."
The dress code applies only to kindergarten, 7th and 8th grades this year, but officials intend to add a grade a year until it covers K-8, Eastman wrote. The junior high has about 150 students, with about 30 in kindergarten. Total school enrollment is about 800.
Winona Charger, whose grandson Justin Little Star has been suspended for violating the dress code, said she has seen little evidence of a gang problem. She said the schools should spend more time and money improving academic achievement.
The school district has repeatedly failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law, according to yearly report cards issued by the state Education Department.
"They're not teaching our kids. They're worried about what they're wearing to school. That's what makes me angry," Charger said.
Kim Low Dog said her twin daughters also have run afoul of the junior high's dress code because they wore blue jeans and different colored tops with designs. When she went to the school recently, she found one daughter and other dress-code violators had been taken out of classrooms and put in a separate room.
"She has a right to an education," Low Dog said. "She hadn't committed a crime or anything like that."
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