Tolerance Commission comes to Kenai

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Intolerance and discrimination is not just slinging racial epithets or frozen paint balls at people who are different.

Intolerance and discrimination can manifest itself in many ways: lack of educational or employment opportunities, birthday cards that make fun of growing old, stair steps that are too high, bullying in school, and perhaps worst of all, indifference.

Those were but some of the comments the Governor's Commission on Tolerance heard at Kenai City Hall Monday afternoon, on its next-to-last stop in its tour of several communities around the state.

"The worst type of discrimination, in my opinion, is indifference," said Rita Smagge, executive director of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, a 1,200-member Indian Reorganization Act tribe in the Kenai area.

Speaking of Native children's poor performance on standardized achievement tests, high drop-out and absenteeism rates in public schools, Smagge went on to say, "We have become too complacent. I believe we are in essence saying we really don't expect too much from Native children. We have disempowered and taken away their validation.

"Who's to blame? I think we're all to blame -- the school district, the Native community, as well as the non-Native community, parents and the child."

Commission member Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, agreed.

"I think that the statement that indifference is the worst kind of discrimination is probably true," she said.

Lincoln, from the small Interior village of Rampart, is Alaska Native.

She asked Donna Peterson, superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District if she has witnessed indifference, intolerance or racism in the schools.

"If we are perceived as too complacent, then we have a lot of work to do," Peterson said. "We listen to every complaint that comes across the desk. I don't think we have a huge issue of children in school feeling discriminated against."

She said the district's policy on intolerance is strict.

"Our tolerance for bullying or teasing is minimal," she said. "You need to behave when you come to school for a safe learning environment. We want all students to feel it is a place they want to be."

She added that the school is implementing new policies on student discrimination, as well.

"We believe prevention is better than intervention," she said.

School board member Sammy Crawford echoed Peterson's comments, saying anti-bullying programs are in elementary schools and that every incident that comes up is addressed.

"As a school board and school district, we are very conscious of tolerance," Crawford said.

Smagge pointed out that the tribe funds Native tutors in school, because the school district can't. Peterson explained that like every government entity, it is subject to budget cuts. She added that the district receives absolutely the maximum amount it can from the borough, and if it received even a dollar more, it would have to return an equal amount back to the state of Alaska.

"It is sad that we have to form these partnerships and have someone else pay for tutors, but there's no other way," Peterson said.

Commission member Father Michael Oleksa, a Russian Orthodox priest currently living in the Nushagak River village of Koliganek, asked Peterson if she had specific concerns for any particular groups.

"Particularly Russians and Native Americans," Peterson said. "Attendance is the biggest issue for our Russian schools and Native villages."

Marge Hays, the chair of the Governor's Commission on Aging, testified that discrimination toward the elderly is often subtle, but no less hurtful.

"Seniors are looked at as unattractive and sexless. Old age is to be really feared by many people," Hays said. "Birthday cards are very discriminatory."

She said the the high price of health care and assisted living is where seniors need the most help.

Commission member retired Superior Court Judge Tom Stewart of Juneau said he could relate to the high cost of putting a loved one in an assisted living home. He said he pays $4,400 a month to the Juneau Pioneer Home for his wife, who suffers from dementia.

"And we need more support for care-givers. Eighty percent of the elderly are cared for by family and many find that it interferes with work and their own families," said Hays. "The average woman today will spend more time caring for her senior parents than her own children."

She added that seniors face many of the same obstacles as the disabled. She said on the Commission on Aging, two are elderly and one is in a wheelchair, and it is often difficult to find three rooms in a hotel that can cater to all of them, when they travel to meetings.

"Stair steps are too high, the glare off of vinyl floors makes it difficult for people with sight problems, there needs to be a lot better lighting in public buildings and many seniors can't step over the edge of the tub to take a shower," she said.

She also said seniors are discriminated against in the workplace when they seek jobs for supplemental income.

"They show up on time, are reliable, most aren't into heavy drugs, and they want to be on the job, but they're discriminated against," she said.

Some domestic violence also stems from racism, according to figures from Heather Arnett, executive director of the Women's Resource and Crisis Center.

"In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, in the 1990 census, 7 percent are Alaska Native, but in our emergency shelter and transitional housing, the women are 30 percent Alaska Native," she said. "And the vast majority of the perpetrators (of domestic violence toward WRCC's Native clients) are not Alaska Native, but Caucasian."

Commission member Denise Morris, president and chief executive officer of the Alaska Native Justice Center in Anchorage, asked Arnett if WRCC was working with the Kenaitze tribe and other Native organizations on issues of mutual interest.

"We work very close with them," she said. "When we look at our assessments, we see we really need to work with them even closer."

The commission was put together by Gov. Tony Knowles five months ago and is charged with presenting him with recommendations on Nov. 30.

The commission has traveled to Kotzebue, Juneau, Kodiak, Fairbanks, Bethel and Anchorage to hear testimony from individuals and groups.

Written testimony can be made by mail to the Commission on Tolerance, 550 W. Seventh Ave., Suite 1700, Anchorage, AK 99501, e-mailed to tolerance@gov.state or faxed to (907) 269-7461.

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