Haskell Indian Nations University report outrages lawmakers

Republican lawmakers are calling on the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education to turn over information and documents about alleged misconduct at Haskell Indian Nations University, including allegations that administrators inadequately handled student reports of sexual abuse.

Earlier this month, the leaders of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the House Committee on Natural Resources sent a mail to Tony Dearman, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, requesting unredacted copies of investigative reports regarding complaints against Kansas University by Native American students. The letter is signed by the chairs of the two committees, Virginia Foxx and Bruce Westerman, and the chairs of two subcommittees.

They wrote that officials at the university, the agency and the Department of the Interior received “numerous complaints, emails and letters” from current and former students and employees regarding problems at Haskell, including reports of sexual assault and bullying on campus. Haskell serves roughly 1,000 students, all from federally recognized tribes, according to its statement website. It is one of only two higher education institutions operated directly by the agency. Another 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities across the country are chartered by tribal governments, according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Agency officials drew ire from politicians after dragging their feet earlier this year on sharing one scathing investigative report in allegations against Haskell made by agency personnel, Indianz.coma Native American-focused news site, reported.

The investigation was prompted by “various letters and anonymous complaints” to the agency, “alleging failure to respond to student complaints, student harassment and bullying by HINU administrators, theft, nepotism, sexual assault, workplace harassment/threats/bullying, fraud, waste, and abuse,” according to the report.

An administrative review board, made up of agency staff, conducted 34 interviews with Haskell students and employees and submitted the results to the agency in November 2022, the report states. Although the report is dated January 2023, the agency released a redacted version of it publicly only in April after it was sued by a nonprofit watchdog on behalf of a former employee and students frustrated by the delays.

Lawmakers wrote in the letter that they are concerned that the agency failed to “promptly address student concerns, particularly those involving sexual assault reports,” “left out information from the very reports intended to address those concerns,” and “repeatedly refused to produce” the report.

Staff at Haskell referred questions from Inside Higher Ed to a spokesperson at the Bureau of Indian Education, but officials there did not respond to requests for comment.

The trial

A legal battle was required for the results of the investigation to be made public.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit that represents government employee whistleblowers, sued the Bureau of Indian Education in July 2023 for denying its Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the report, according to a press release from the organization.

PEER first made the request in April 2023 after Clay Mayes, the university’s former cross country and track coach, said he and students had been interviewed for an investigation but never heard back about the results.

Agency officials responded a month later, saying that they could not fulfill the request due to concerns about violating privacy, publicizing internal deliberations, and violating the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Act, which protects the privacy of people who report abuse against Native children. After its appeal was ignored, PEER sued. Several Haskell students also filed FOIA requests in September.

A lawyer representing the agency then agreed to provide the organization with a report in November, but it was one other report about another investigation focused on student complaints, later deemed unfounded, and accusing Mayes of favoritism — not the report PEER wanted. The lawyer argued that the report sought by PEER was “not completed” — and likely wouldn’t be until January 2024 — “and is therefore beyond the scope of the request and litigation.”

PEER pushed back, and in April the agency publicly released a redacted version of the 80-page investigative report and accompanying documents.

“Disturbing” findings

Jeff Ruch, the Pacific director of PEER, said the report’s “disturbing” findings explain why agency officials “will go to great lengths to cover it up.”

“The content involved alleged misconduct ranging from sexual assault to embezzlement,” he said. “Anything that indicated there was something rotten on Haskell.”

For example, the report details that a student allegedly sexually assaulted three other students and that university staff did not properly investigate what happened. In general, university employees “appear to take minimal action when students make allegations of sexual abuse” and have “inadequate” procedures that “put the overall health and safety of students at risk,” the report said. It also accused the university of failing to follow up with victims, haphazardly applying Title IX sexual assault policies and neglecting to make campus leaders aware of sexual assault reports.

Other allegations cited in the report include a coach “rubbing the backs and shoulders” of student athletes in a way that made them uncomfortable, nepotism in the athletics department and the wrongful termination of Mayes, who was “bullied, harassed and intimidated.”

The report calls the university “severely dysfunctional.” It also notes that despite repeated student complaints to the university and the agency, investigators “could find no evidence that any management official recognized the students or made any attempt to respond, even to let them know they would investigate their concerns.”

Lawmakers stressed in their letter that the report contains “serious allegations” of alleged misconduct that “ravaged … the welfare of students and faculty.” They expressed dissatisfaction with the “heavily redacted” version of the report, which omits most names. The letter requests that Congress receive a full copy of the report and accompanying documents, as well as an explanation of any changes made to this material between November 2022, when it was submitted, and January 2023, when the report is dated.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran expressed similar frustrations to the Interior Department in April. In a mail to Department Secretary Deb Haaland, he asked when officials learned of the report and what the department planned to do to make “meaningful change” at Haskell.

He described the 2022 hearing on charges — including on the termination of Maye’s contract — and an exchange with department officials in 2023 detailing changes the agency would make at the university. But his office continued to receive complaints from students, leading to a meeting last October with Dearman, the agency’s director, during which Moran learned of the investigation and that “Haskell was working to improve its processes for monitoring student well-being.” However, the release of the report this year did little to ease his mind.

“By failing to respond to the findings of this report in a timely and appropriate manner, federal employees at the Department of the Interior – particularly the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and (Bureau of Indian Education) – have failed to uphold the federal government’s responsibilities to Native American students” , Moran wrote.

Ruch, of PEER, said he’s glad to see congressional Republicans pushing the bureau to address concerns about Haskell. He believes that Democrats are generally less likely to take up oversight of federal agencies under a Democratic administration, and that the same was true of Republican lawmakers under former President Donald Trump. He thinks enforcement efforts can sometimes be used primarily to “score points” in the political arena, but he sees this as simply calling on a federal agency to improve.

The question now is “What is (the agency) going to do about it?” he said. “It’s been a few months now and it’s not clear what, if anything, they’re going to do.”

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