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American Indian adolescents in Montana are caught in a school-to prison pipeline. They are plagued with low academic achievement, high dropout, suspension and expulsion rates, and disproportionate contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. While these are typical of the school-to-prison phenomenon as it also appears in poor minority communities across the country, the rates and the disproportion for American Indians in Montana are particularly acute. Even more disturbing, many American Indian students in Montana are also the victims of another heartbreaking trend related to the school-to-prison pipeline — alarming levels of adolescent suicides and self-harm. The tragic situation of these children on remote reservations in the Northeast corner of Montana has received far too little attention.

This article presents relevant regional data, heretofore largely unexamined, and provides some personal narratives that demonstrate the shocking educational inequities American Indian children suffer in Montana. It also makes recommendations for addressing the problem. Part I lays out the theory of the school-to-prison pipeline and introduces the tribes of the Fort Peck and Rocky Boy’s reservations. Part II provides some background and history on American Indian public education. Part III presents data which demonstrate the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline for American Indians in Montana, including characteristic features of the pipeline such as school funding inequalities, racial imbalances in academic achievement among public school students, and racially disproportional school discipline. Part IV describes the youth suicide crisis on the Fort Peck Reservation and its relationship to school practices. Part V examines the disproportionate involvement of American Indian youth with the State’s juvenile justice system. Part VI provides recommendations for how to alleviate the school-to-prison pipeline problem through changes in policy or practice. Part VII proposes legal challenges to combat the pipeline and posits that the limited number of legal avenues available for reversing the pipeline is illustrative of a more general nationwide dilemma in education law for which lawyers and advocates will need to develop innovative strategies.

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Montana Law Review