A  Native American student says she wants to bring justice for her people and she’s using the court to do it.

Alyssa Black Bear is opening the door for a class action lawsuit over the lack of results of South Dakota’s GEAR UP college readiness program in helping Native American students.  

Black Bear, who is now a college student at the University of Nebraska, is suing Mid Central Educational Cooperative for breach of contract, claiming that she and other Native American students did not get the services promised by the GEAR UP program. 

As our KELOLAND News investigation has uncovered, since 2005, $62 million in federal and matching state funds, will have been spent in South Dakota on the college readiness program.  But there’s virtually no data to show how many students went onto college because of it.

Now Alyssa Black Bear, who was a student at Todd County High School, is filing a breach of contract lawsuit against Mid Central Educational Cooperative for unspecified damages. 

Black Bear currently lives in Valentine, Nebraska and attends the University of Nebraska. In her lawsuit, she says she wants to represent a class of students who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the South Dakota Department of Education GEAR UP grant. 

While Black Bear is not granting interviews, her attorneys tell KELOLAND News that she cares a great deal about this issue.

Black Bears thinks that the state and Mid-Central Educational Cooperative seriously mismanaged the GEAR UP program to her detriment, as well as the other students, who were supposed to benefit from it. She says she’s filed the lawsuit to get justice and restitution for her people. 

In court papers, Black Bear’s lawsuit outlines many of the promises the state made about administering the grant to the federal government – from establishing a proper accounting system, to making sure safeguards were in place to prohibit employees working on the grant from using their position in a way that leads to conflicts of interest or personal gain. 

The lawsuit also brings up the fact that the state got a waiver from having to use at least half of the GEAR UP funds for scholarships, saying that students already had access to plenty of scholarships.

But the suit says none of those scholarships were provided directly by the South Dakota Department of Education and none of the scholarships were specifically for students being served by the GEAR UP grant.

The suit also goes into who the state promised would be overseeing the GEAR UP program – the Office of Indian Education in the Department of Education. We know those responsibilities were transferred over to Mid Central. 

The suit goes on to name the roles Scott Westerhuis, Stacy Phelps, Rick Melmer, Brinda Kuhn, and Kelly Duncan played in the GEAR UP grant, while drawing salaries from Mid Central. 

The lawsuit also goes over the legislative audit findings on GEAR UP and the state’s termination of its contract with Mid Central

The suit outlines the criminal charges in the state’s GEAR UP investigation also to prove GEAR UP students did not get the intended benefits due to fraud, waste and abuse of grant funds, and claims students suffered financial damages because Mid Central did not live up to its end of the GEAR UP contract.

KELOLAND News asked Black Bear’s attorneys if she also planned to file suit against the South Dakota Department of Education and was told not at this time.

 KELOLAND News has also learned of another lawsuit regarding Mid Central, but this time MId Central is the plaintiff.

 Mid Central is suing the American Indian Institute for Innovation for breach of contract, fraud, deceit and stealing.  Mid Central says that AIII, under the direction of Scott Westerhuis, improperly used between $40,000 to $150,000 a month of Mid Central money and that Mid Central never authorized it. 

Mid Central says by the end of last year AIII owed Mid Central as much as $826,000 that it took for its payroll. 

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the interim director of Mid Central and state investigators went to Rapid City to see what was in a storage shed that Mid Central had rented out, but the contents were a mystery.
Attorney General Marty Jackley tells KELOLAND News nothing to that would help in the criminal investigation was found inside.

“There were a considerable number of textbooks, furniture, desks – it was a significant amount of GEAR UP supplies. They have since been turned over to BHSU to be hopefully put to better use,” Jackley said.
Black Hills State University has taken over the administration of the GEAR UP grant program through the Board of Regents.  All of those desks and textbooks were purchased with taxpayer dollars.