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The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education last month was legally compelled to publicly release an investigative report into Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU) that was finished more than a year ago. The investigation found that the university ignored student reports of sexual assault and abuse, as well as bullying and intimidation by Haskell administrators. 

Haskell, located in Lawrence, Kan., is operated by the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education. According to the investigative report, beginning in 2021 student allegations were reported to their athletic department, relayed to the school president, the BIE Director, and even the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, but “did not get a response or any indication their issues would be addressed.”

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In June 2022, students took their unanswered complaints to the Office of the Investigator General, which declined to investigate complaints and instead recommended BIE conduct its own investigation. 

The 80-page investigative report was conducted by three BIE staff members, who interviewed 34 students and staff between July 2022 and November 2022. But the report was never released to the public or the interviewees, who say they were promised the final report. 

Eventually, in July 2023, a third-party government whistleblower organization sued BIE for it. After an attempt to pass off another report as the Haskell investigation, the BIE finally released the redacted report to the whistleblower organization in late April. 

“The board finds (Haskell Indian Nations University) to be severely dysfunctional and severely lacking processes and procedures,” the report reads.

The basis of student athletes’ complaints were born from what the report found to be the wrongful termination of their cross country coach, Clay Mayes. After Mayes reported the sexual abuse of a student athlete by another coach and a claim of government property theft to his superior, Mayes was barred from contacting his athletes for five months. During that span, he was told an investigation was taking place, according to a letter the coach sent BIA director Anthony Dearman in July 2023. 

But a year later, when no report was produced, Mayes reached out to a nonprofit organization that specialized in whistleblowing on government agencies, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Attorney Jeff Ruch, director of PEER’s Pacific Office in California, told Native News Online that he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the Haskell investigative report on behalf of Mayes and several Haskell students who were interviewed for the investigation, but never given access to the report. He says he was surprised to end up in a months-long back and forth with the Bureau of Indian Education over the report.

About a month after Ruch filed the FOIA request, the BIE rejected the request on the grounds that releasing it would violate “the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act, which provides for the confidentiality of informants making reports of abused Indian children.” PEER appealed that denial, and sued for the report in July 2023. 

Later, BIA told PEER that the report wouldn’t be ready until January 2024—a lie, based on the date of the now-published report, a full year earlier—and sent a different, earlier investigation that was conducted by the United States Postal Service. Four students who were interviewed by BIE staff for the Haskell investigative report also filed FOIA requests for the BIE report, and were instead sent the other report.

Prior to the Haskell report, BIE contracted the United States Postal Service to investigate specific complaints against Mayes for allegations of favoritism among athletes, inappropriate behavior, and “emotional manipulation.” The Haskell investigative report found “most of the allegations” against Mayers to “be frivolous at best” and that the coach was subject to bullying and harassment by other employees.  

Similarly, the USPS 528-page report, completed in June 2022, was described in the Haskell investigation as  “less than acceptable… as [USPS] did not seek out witnesses that had substantial information to contribute to their investigation.”

When Ruch finally received the Haskell investigative report last month, he said he understood why the agency went to great lengths to keep it from the public.

“It was a scathing report in the sense that a number of the conclusions that were highlighted are fairly astounding. Things like sexual assaults weren’t reported, there’s no investigation, no follow up with victims,” Ruch told Native News Online. “The report is interesting for a variety of reasons, but in large measure because of the efforts the agency went through to deny its existence or prevent its release.” 

The report substantiates a student's claim that a student “sexually assaulted three other students and was allowed to remain in the dorms.” Additionally, the report called it “appalling…that management would send a coach home and assign him other duties for several months for alleged inappropriate touching (on a student’s buttocks).”

Additionally, investigators wrote that Haskell Student Services do not believe it is their responsibility to notify local police when a student reports sexual assault “because they are considered adults.”

Ruch said the 103 supporting documents PEER received last week, including transcripts of interviews with the students and victims, tell an even fuller story than the report does. 

“For example, one of the other issues was alleged theft of athletic equipment,” Ruch said. “And the report said: it was difficult to verify the theft of athletic equipment because the university had no inventory of equipment. Then, when you look at the exhibits, there are multiple eyewitnesses saying: on this date, X person loaded their van full of equipment. I don’t know how many reports like that you have to get in order to ring the fire alarm.”

Now that the investigative report has been made public, Ruch said it's incumbent on the federal agencies responsible for the school and its students—all of which fall under the Department of the Interior—to take action.

U.S. lawmakers agree. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) wrote a letter to DOI Secretary Deb Haaland after he learned of the report last month, saying that the agency’s employees “failed to uphold the federal government’s responsibility to Native American students.”

Moran’s top concern was communication. “I am certain the lack of responsiveness to tribal concern has eroded trust between the BIA and Indigenous communities, especially Haskell students and staff,” he wrote. “The failure to notify my office, students, and other stakeholders of the severity of finding in the report has diminished any confidence that the issue raised will be adequately addressed.”

On May 1, in a House Natural Resources Committee meeting, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) asked Haaland if she knew about the Haskell report.

“Madam Secretary, as the first Indigenous woman to serve in your position, I know that the health and safety of young native students is a top priority of yours especially as is highlighted in your testimony today and in the DOI budget,” he said. “That is why I was disturbed to learn about students making very serious allegations of things like harassment, bullying, theft, sexual assault, fraud and more for years now [at Haskell]. It is my understanding that BIE investigated some of these claims and then went to great lengths to hide them, until recently (when) the media reports made the findings public.”

The Congressman asked Secretary Haalaand if she agreed that BIE “was slow to respond to the concerns of these students?”

Haaland said she didn’t have a timeline, but that she absolutely cares about every single student.

“Will you commit today to work to make things better at the school on behalf of the students?” Gosar asked. 

“I work every day to make things better for everybody, Congressman,” she replied, adding “and certainly for our students.”

As for Ruch, he said he’s waiting for “the other shoe to drop”—or for the Department of the Interior to acknowledge and respond with the next steps for Haskell, a component that was missing from the report.

 “The report came to no firm conclusions and there were no next steps,” he said. “So, could this all happen again tomorrow?  Is there going to be a system at Haskell to investigate allegations of sexual harassment, or assault, or reports to law enforcement? At the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any plan to address this.”

On Monday, a spokesperson from the DOI said that, based on the report’s finding, “BIE and Haskell have developed policy and procedural reforms to take effect by Fall 2024, including new policies designed to address employee and student sexual harassment and bullying; athletic equipment and facility use and management; student-athlete eligibility; and student alcohol and drug use.”

Those policies will be published on Haskell’s website in the coming weeks, the spokesperson added.

Haskell also hired a Campus Advocate Coordinator position and has recently rolled out behavioral health services for students and staff. 

Editor's Note:  This story has been updated to clarify the timing of the Interior Department's response to Native News Online questions. 

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.