Native couples sue Reed Point School, alleging discrimination at basketball game

During a public forum at the Billings Public Library last February, Brandy and Elsworth GoesAhead first publicly talked about what they said happened to them at a basketball game in Reed Point. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Two Native American couples who say they were insulted and discriminated against at a basketball game in Reed Point early in 2017 intend to file lawsuit against the Reed Point School on Monday.

A press release from the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which went out Friday morning, said the ACLU had filed the suit on behalf of the couples in Stillwater County District Court, but a clerk there said nothing had been filed yet.

Katie Beall, with the ACLU in Helena, said a paper copy of the complaint was mailed on Friday and should arrive by in Columbus, the county seat, by Monday. A copy of the complaint accompanied the press release.

In the complaint, Brandy and Elsworth GoesAhead and Whitney Holds and Emerine Whiteplume said that while waiting to get into the gymnasium at Reed Point High School on Jan. 21, 2017, they were barred from entering even though “a group of white Reed Point community members” were allowed to enter.

According to the complaint, a school district staff member at the door, later identified as Athletic Director Teresa Bare, was overheard by the couples telling the people from Reed Point, “we don’t have any workers yet so we are only letting white people in.”

Reed Point School Superintendent Mike Ehinger, who was also named in the suit, as was Bare, repeated on Friday what he said shortly after the GoesAheads first aired their allegations.

“I believed from the beginning that it was a misunderstanding, and I still do,” he said.

Ehinger also said that the Montana Human Rights Bureau, with which Brandy GoesAhead first filed a complaint against the Reed Point school district, dismissed that complaint in a notice filed Jan. 2.

That notice said the Human Rights Bureau “determined that the allegations of the complaint were not supported by a preponderance of the evidence.”

As noted in the ACLU complaint, however, the Human Rights Bureau notice was also a “Notice of Right to File Civil Action in District Court.”

In the complaint, the GoesAheads, Holds and Whiteplume ask the court to favor their claim that the district unlawfully discriminated against them and to prohibit the defendants “from discriminating against Native Americans or any other protected class.”

It also asks that school district employees undergo “implicit bias training” and training on harassment and discrimination. It also asks that the district pay for attorney fees and court costs and damages of $1.

The suit was filed by Alex Rate, with the ACLU of Montana, and Jaime Iguchi, a lawyer from Missoula.

The complaint said the GoesAheads live in Billings and have a son who attends Plenty Coups High School and plays on the school’s basketball team. Holds and Whiteplume live in Pryor and have children who also attend Plenty Coups High.

The complaint said all four plaintiffs heard Bare’s statement about letting only white people in, as did a young child of Holds and Whiteplume. The complaint said Brandy and Elsworth GoesAhead and Whiteplume all posted “contemporaneous accounts” of the incident on their Facebook pages, each telling basically the same story and repeating Bare’s alleged remark.

Three days after the basketball game, the complaint continues, the plaintiffs wrote to Ehinger, explaining what happened and asking that “Bare’s behavior be handled in a fair and appropriate manner.”

Ehinger responded the same day, the complaint says, telling them the incident was not being taken lightly. Before they heard from him again, the plaintiffs said, Ehinger said in a post on the school district’s Facebook page that “he did not think the incident in question actually happened, and shaming Plaintiffs for contacting the ACLU of Montana.”

In his email last year, which Ehinger made public, he promised to investigate the matter and apologized that the couples felt mistreated, regardless of “the investigation and outcomes.”

He said on Friday that it was “heartbreaking” to hear that people thought they were being discriminated against, even though he believes it was a misunderstanding, and he wishes there were some way he could help the two couples deal with the hurt they suffered in the incident.

“If I could find a way to bridge that gap and restore that relationship I would,” he said, “but I don’t know how to do that.”