At the start of the year, a group of 57 Native Americans students from the Lakota tribe were taken to a minor league hockey match in Rapid City, South Dakota to celebrate their academic achievements. But what started as a field trip to reward the students quickly turned into a nightmare, when a group of drunk men in an executive suite dumped beer on their heads and yelled “go back to the Rez!”
Seven months later, only one of the perpetrators faces criminal charges. His trial begins today, and if found guilty he will be convicted of disorderly conduct and fined $500 — avoiding hate crime charges, a jury, and jail time.
In January, a group of third through eighth grade students from the American Horse School were watching the local hockey team, the Rapid City Rush, before several adults started asking them questions about where they are from. Middle school teacher and head chaperone Consuelo Means alleges she overheard several men sitting in an executive suite above them asking eighth grade girls questions, and immediately asked the students to stop talking to the strangers because they were drunk. The men continued asking questions and when the home team scored, one banged on the wall and told the students to cheer louder because they were “from the Rez.” Means briefly looked for security for assistance, but when she returned to her seat, she felt something dripping on her head. Looking up, she saw the men dumping beer on three rows of students. When Means alerted the other chaperones and tried to intervene, the perpetrators reportedly yelled at the group to go back to the Rez.
The students left the game shortly after. One girl was crying while the others remained quiet during the drive home to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Allen, South Dakota.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate for [the men] to be talking to my students,” Means explained to ThinkProgress. She contends the girls stopped responding to the men, but the latter began addressing other students in the group. “We’ve been there five years and nothing like that’s ever happened.” Before leaving the venue, she was asked to complete an incident report and told she would be contacted, but there was no mention of calling law enforcement.
In the following days, students’ parents called the school looking for answers. And since then, children have been hesitant to leave the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is home to 28,700 people and considered a poster child of poverty. To avoid more racist attacks, they are choosing to stay local. Similar field trips off of the reservation have been cancelled, and kids no longer go to Rapid City for medical needs and entertainment. They only have annual sun dances, or prayer ceremonies, to look forward to during vacation.
After the incident, the Rapid City Police Department conducted an investigation and concluded three men were directly responsible. However, they only decided to charge one, Trace O’Connell, with disorderly conduct — a misdemeanor. And much to the chagrin of school administrators, federal prosecutors have not gotten involved, despite American Horse School being a federal institution.
Gloria Kitsopoulos is the superintendent and principal of the American Horse School and a member of the Lakota tribe. According to Kitsopoulos, the chief of police, city attorney, and state attorney drove to the school to explain the results of the investigation and deeply offended the parents and school officials who had assembled there.
“The first thing that really offended me was that they brought the communications guy from Rapid City with them and I gave him the microphone so he could talk to the people. He said, ‘if anyone wants to use the talking stick when I’m done, let me know,‘” she told ThinkProgress. When the misdemeanor charge was announced, “nobody really said anything because [they] thought ‘okay that’s the first one, that’s probably the lesser charge.’ And that was it. Everybody was just dumbfounded.”
Parents were outraged and began to yell, at which point the chief of police approached Kitsopoulos and said, “I think we should leave. I’m fearing for her safety” and pointed to the female state attorney. Back in Rapid City, officers claimed they fled the reservation out of fear. But the superintendent maintains nobody was showing signs of aggression at the meeting.
On the day of the first hearing, O’Connell, who has plead not guilty, was a no-show. Rapid City Attorney Joel Landeen, who is representing the students, asked that a jury hear the case and for jail time to stay on the table. Due to their large presence in Rapid City, Native Americans were hopeful that some of their own would sit on the jury. But the judge presiding over the case has since denied both requests, so the maximum penalty is a $500 fine. No hate crime, assault, or child abuse charges are being pursued.
“I’m a retired lieutenant colonel for the United States Army. I spent 26 years serving my country — [in] Vietnam and Desert Storm. What have we accomplished?” says Kitsopoulos. “Again, justice has not been served for the native people or the children.”
“I tell the students all the time [they] can do anything, [they] can go anywhere, [they] can be anything,” she concluded. “Immediately after [the hockey game] I brought them in and talked to them. These were my top students, rewarded for their academics. The first thing they said to me [was], ‘you said that we could go anywhere and be anything, and we can’t.’ That made me the angriest — that they took that away from them: that hope.”