Students at Santa Fe Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution in New Mexico, take part in a walkout on March 14, 2018, to call attention to school shootings and support gun reform. Photo: Santa Fe Indian School Music Department

Indian students demand action to prevent violence at their schools

Students across the nation, including many in Indian Country, are demanding action on gun reform in hopes of preventing violence at their places of learning.

Students at Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico were among the thousands who took part in mass walkouts on Wednesday morning. Their action came a month after a deadly shooting in Florida prompted young people to declare #NeverAgain when it comes to gun violence.

"We shouldn't have to live in fear of going to school, or going to a concert or going to places that we were promised would be safe," the Braves and Lady Braves Against School Violence, a student-led group, said in a statement from their campus in New Mexico's capital city.

"We shouldn't have to be fighting for our lives and the lives of students across the country," the students, who represents tribes from throughout the Southwest, said.

The walkout lasted 17 minutes, to honor the 17 people who lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14. But the Braves and Lady Braves also recognized a tragedy closer to home -- barely three months ago, two students were killed in a shooting at a school near the Navajo Nation.

Posted by Santa Fe Indian School Music Department on Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Santa Fe Indian School Music Department on Facebook: Walkout on March 14, 2018

Though it didn't occur on the reservation, the December 7, 2017, incident at Aztec High School in New Mexico wasn't the first to affect Indian Country. In March 2005, seven students were among the nine victims in a shooting on the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota. In October 2014, two students lost their lives at a school that serves the Tulalip Tribes in Washington.

The frequency of school shootings -- there have been several gun-related incidents so far this year, although some reform groups insist the number is higher -- has politicians from both parties paying attention. As the students were staging walkouts across the country, the House passed H.R.4909, the STOP School Violence Act, on Wednesday.

“If there is any place our children can feel safe, it should be our schools," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the Speaker of the House, said in a statement.

The bill, which cleared the chamber by a bipartisan vote of 407 to 10, would provide $75 million a year in grants to tribes, states, school districts and law enforcement agencies. Recipients could use the funds to develop intervention and prevention programs in hopes of stopping violence before it occurs.

The Senate is considering a similar version of the measure. President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation has endorsed S.2495, which also enjoys bipartisan backing.

"Children in our school system and their educators should not be burdened with fearing for their safety while attending school," said Begaye, who was among the many leaders who responded to the Aztec shooting in December. "The timing of STOP is imperative to provide our students with a safe environment to facilitate their educational growth and confidence."

Despite the broad support on Capitol Hill for the grants, lawmakers have yet to take action a key demand voiced by students and other advocates: changing the nation's gun laws. While H.R.4909 and S.2495 would not allow the use of federal funds to arm teachers, neither bill includes provisions to limit the access or sale of firearms.

"Today was wonderful. Today was important. Today was historical. But sadly, today was not enough," a group called March For Our Lives said of the walkouts on Wednesday. The group is organizing a march on the U.S. Capitol on March 24 to call for changes to gun laws.

The overwhelming majority of American Indian and Alaska Native students attend public schools, whether on or off reservations. But many also attend schools funded through the Bureau of Indian Education, a federal agency. The Santa Fe Indian School is among those in the BIE category.

According to the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of the Interior, the BIE has failed to ensure that all employees, contractors, and volunteers who come in contact with Indian children have completed background checks.

"These issues leave children vulnerable to contact with persons who would be determined unfit if background checks were completed before hiring and then reinvestigated every 5 years as required," a report, which was completed last month stated.

A 2016 report also found lapses in BIE school safety. Of the 16 schools visited, only four had emergency plans to cover incidents like bomb threats, shootings and hostage situations. Only seven offered violence prevention training, the OIG said.

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