KELOLAND News first broke the story of the class action lawsuit filed by a Native American student against Mid Central Educational Cooperative over the GEAR UP program.
Tonight that lawsuit is growing in size.
KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke has been investigating the GEAR UP grant for the last 8 months and tonight spoke exclusively with the attorney representing the student in the class action lawsuit.
Alyssa Black Bear is suing Mid Central saying educational co-op breached its contract to serve Native American students in the state by mishandling and mismanaging the GEAR UP grant money.
Since KELOLAND News Investigates first brought you the story of this lawsuit, several other parents, students and non-profit groups working on the reservation have contacted the attorney representing Black Bear.
While Black Bear is staying out of the spotlight for now, her Sioux Falls attorney spoke to us about the case.
While Alyssa Black Bear was the first student to file suit, this is a class action suit that could potentially have thousands of plaintiffs. Black Bear was a student at Todd County High School, but says she never got to take part in the college readiness program.
“She was eligible and was told the dollars weren’t sufficient for her to have the opportunity to go through this program,” Heidepriem said.
While it’s too late for Black Bear and other Native American students who’ve already graduated, Attorney Scott Heidepriem says someone must be held accountable for the program’s failure.
“After all, this is a program that is really supposed to turn the tide of poverty on the reservation. That’s the tragedy of this. It existed for a reason and that reason never got carried out for thousands of kids,” Heidepriem said.
Mid Central was supposed to administer it according to the plan laid out in the state’s grant application to the federal government. But as our KELOLAND News investigation has revealed, what the state promised to do and what actually happened were very different.
“There was a contract here between Mid Central and the State of South Dakota and there were third party beneficiaries. Those are the thousands of kids who were supposed to be helped up to the starting line of life and were deprived of those services. So if there are any resources available we’d like to see if we can’t get them to compensate those kids,” Heidepriem said.
Kelsey Walking Eagle and her mother spoke with KELOLAND News last fall. They told us about many problems they experienced with the GEAR UP program and services they were supposed to get, but did not. Walking Eagle is one of the first students to join in on the class action suit with Black Bear against Mid Central.
“Treating these kids justly is really, really important. It’s important to them, but it’s important to all of us that actually happens. We have a chance to do that we think,” Heidepriem said.
The lawsuit outlines many of the promises the state of South Dakota made about administering the grant to the federal government. Those include safeguards to prevent fraud and conflict of interest. Heidepriem says naming the state in the lawsuit hasn’t been ruled out.
No court date has been set yet for Black Bear’s lawsuit, which is filed in Charles Mix County.