A culture of fear in Indian Country

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The Bridges Career and Technical High School at Warm Springs, Oregon, where students not on track to graduate are nearly all Native American.

I didn’t need her to tell me she was afraid, although she did. Her fear radiated through the phone, lacing her warm voice with nervous laughter. We were there to talk about her grandson and his experience being a Native American public school student in central Oregon for what ultimately became “Native American Students in Crisis From Punitive Discipline, Substandard Curricula,” a story I wrote for InvestigateWest and The Nation. Like many other Warm Springs tribal members, her grandson’s school life was rife with suspensions and expulsions and great chasms of cultural misunderstanding.

Initially, she had wanted to speak out about the injustice she saw, the racism she felt was dictating the punitive action toward her grandson and that she worried was stripping away his potential and confidence. Just that week he had said to her that he must be stupid. But over the next few days and weeks, my source grew fearful that if her family’s story came to light, she or her grandson would be punished. She had good reason for such concern.

What I learned in reporting this story is that there are limits to my ability to protect my sources. I’ve always known this on a theoretical level but never before have I watched the impact of my presence have such immediate unintended consequences.

While visiting Warm Springs, I spoke with a teacher “off the record,” journalism jargon that means we agreed that I wouldn’t publish anything she said without a follow-up conversation. After we spoke, this teacher gave me a ride from the school where she worked to an alternative school down the road. Immediately afterward, she was placed on paid administrative leave.  An investigator hired by the school district told me, when she called to interview me about my encounter with the teacher, that the district was concerned the teacher had shared confidential information about students. She hadn’t, and ultimately she was allowed to return to her job. But the district’s action had a chilling effect. Parents, teachers and tribal members all let me know they were no longer happy to talk, or that our interview should now, please, be left unused.

The culture of fear preceded the incident with the teacher. Other parents, teachers and former students told me they were concerned with the issues my story meant to describe, about how America is failing to support its Native American students, but they worried for their jobs, with the district or with the tribe, if they expressed their views. More importantly, they worried that a pall could be cast upon their children, students in the school.

Over the course of my career, I’ve interviewed former slaves, undocumented farm workers, victims of sexual assault, government whistleblowers, all incredibly vulnerable, but the sheer number of people I encountered while reporting this story who feared retribution was staggering. The majority of my sources for this story asked to be interviewed, at least initially, “off the record” or “on background,” in which case I could use what they said, but couldn’t attribute a quote to that individual by name.

I know reporters who refuse to interview sources on background or off the record and I respect that choice. For me, I’ve always felt like my job is to understand what’s going on and if talking to someone in a less formal context helps me do that, so much the better. And when the job is to talk to people who aren’t powerful, who are in jeopardy in any way, I think it’s important to level the playing field, to have a conversation and let them decide what they want done with their words, with their story.

Journalism has the potential to disrupt the status quo, to provide a voice for the voiceless and, ideally, to help the vulnerable. Yet the time frame for such change can be long, and our ability as reporters to protect our sources in the interim can be limited.

After the teacher I interviewed was placed on leave, I called lawyers and journalism ethics professors to inquire how I might help. I consulted my editors and colleagues. The resounding answer was: wait. See how things unfold. Don’t make things worse. Your job is to report the story; do that. Which is what I did, but I wished I could have done more.

When my source, the one with the grandson, grew fearful, my editors and I realized that even if we tried to protect her identity by providing her anonymity, in such a small community, the details of her story would betray who she was. In our last phone call, I gently suggested we couldn’t protect her and asked if she would still be willing to come forward if we used her name. She declined. It was too big a risk. I left her thoughtful perspective, the upsetting and illuminating details of her grandson’s specific story on a heap with dozens of other interviews.

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Rebecca Clarren’s piece originally appeared as our August 2017 SIDEBAR — an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members. Not a member yet? Join today.

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