Wyola School District Superintendent Kenneth Deputee was charged on Oct. 13 with 88 counts of child endangerment in Crow Tribal Court after Wyola classrooms sat empty for a week this earlier this month.
The closure was the apparent result after tensions between members of the community and the school’s administration, particularly Deputee, reached a boiling point, culminating in an estimated 30 student transfers out of the school and a picket line being started by parents on Oct. 4.
Parents of students have been working to get more attention on the school due to perceived corruption and abuse to students. The Wyola community claims the school is hiring people that are unfit to work for schools, including uncertified and people with previous felonies. There are also reports of physical and emotional abuse from staff to students.
Police were called by the school during the protest, but Wyola has not responded to any attempts at communication.
Big Horn County Sheriff’s Department Deputies were present at the protest., as well as Bureau of Indian Affairs Law Enforcement Officers.
Sheriff Darrell King said while he was not present the report stated that it was a peaceful demonstration, although there was a case of a staff member allegedly being assaulted by some of the protesters. Eventually, sometime around noon, BHC deputies left to respond to other calls, leaving the BIA officers there. As the alleged assault occurred on tribal land, BIA officers are investigating.
Deputee issued several no trespass orders to community members, the orders do not state any reasons for the no trespass determination, nor do they cite any policy that was violated.
While Wyola has only recently made headlines, the school has been struggling for several years. Rachel Schillreff, Regional Consultant with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, detailed the school’s rocky history.
According to Schillreff, while Christy Wright is superintendent of Wyola School, Teachers and classified staff lead negotiations to receive raises. The terms were accepted, but Christy Wright was removed as Superintendent in the 2021-22 school year, with no official reason cited. With no superintendent, John Small, the County Superintendent of Schools temporarily stepped in to fill the position.
Deputee was hired as Superintendent in September 2022. Shortly after this, Jenine Syness, the school’s Board Clerk and Business Manager was ousted with no official reason cited. Deputee hired his wife, Nancy Deputee, to replace Syness as board clerk, which brings concerns of nepotism, Schillreff said.
An incident involving Deputee, his wife Nancy Deputee, a third individual and Board Member Marlene Stewart occurred on December 12, 2022.
According to former board member Marlene Stewart, she was accosted by Deputee while preparing the next board meeting agenda. Deputee accused Stewart of failing to file paperwork that would give the school funding, which Stewart claims she never received.
After this, Nancy Deputee allegedly began antagonizing Stewart saying, “Hit me, hit me!” Before elbowing Stewart. Stewart stated she went home after the incident, and shortly thereafter police came to her home.
Deputee pressed charges and Stewart went to tribal court on Dec. 27, 2022, where Deputee received a restraining order against Stewart.
According to Schillreff, a report from Dec. 14, 2022 alleges Deputee flashed a handgun to a teacher saying, “I may have to point this in someone’s face,” followed by a laugh.
The teacher explained in a letter he wrote that he “felt extremely concerned after (Kenneth) made those comments to me.” He reported the situation to a senior teacher, who confirmed hearing about the concern but said she never saw the firearm or Deputee that day.
In January 2023 Deputee was removed as superintendent for lacking proper certification. In his place, Linda Pease took over. Pease had previously worked as Wyola’s superintendent, and according to Schillreff, she began getting the school back on track. Nancy Deputee left her position as clerk when Deputee was removed and Pease rehired Syness.
Syness returned to the clerk position, but sued the school for wrongful termination. The school settles out of court for $20,000.
Teachers and the school returned to the negotiation table as the school’s financial issues kept them from being able to raise teacher salaries. A tentative agreement was reached in May, where the teachers agreed to no raises in pay for the assurance there will be no layoffs. However, the agreement was never signed due to later problems.
John Caplett ran for a position on the school board with the promise of bringing Deputee back on as superintendent, and ran an aggressive campaign against board member Stewart, as well as Jenine Syness. After Caplett wins the board seat in May and Stewart resigns in protest, leaving her seat to be filled by Misty Old Coyote.
Anita “Misty” Stewart was appointed to the board, although Schillreff said, nobody has reported seeing her at any of the board meetings, leaving some to speculate she was there to keep the seat filled. The filling of a seat with no election frustrated members of the community, but it is something that the board can do legally
The Wyola school board removed Pease on May 23.
According to Schillreff, the community is alleging the Board began to hold “secret meetings” where they have little to no notice posted, and are held in the superintendent’s office, and further mentioned by Syness in her resignation letter dated on June 9.
Syness also mentioned the school has begun fostering a “hostile, and dare I say, racist work environment.”
The letter of resignation includes complaints about the board reinstating Deputee, as well as saying “I cannot continue working for an organization that ‘commands’ me to perform duties that are not just unethical, but illegal.”
An ongoing problem amidst all of this is a mass exodus of teachers. Nearly every teacher that travels to Wyola from Wyoming quit, which puts more strain on the already struggling school. Of the eleven teachers who were at the school, six left shortly after Kenneth’s reinstatement. Three more joined them in the days leading to the end of summer.
It alleged that on one of these “illegal” meetings that Deputee is rehired.
The teacher who reported Kenneth for having a firearm has his contract non-renewed at another “illegal” meeting, according to Schillreff
The teacher was on leave and was approached by Deputee at a gas station and handed a termination letter, according to Schillreff.
The teacher said he believes this is retaliatory due to being a whistleblower over Deputee’s firearm. Feeling uncomfortable with being followed over state borders, the teacher relocated and is now teaching in a different state.
On June 15, according to the Board’s meeting minutes, Kenneth Deputee was approved to work as Superintendent/Principal/Athletics Director. Four others are hired as well, Nancy Deputee is brought in as a project coordinator, Frances Swengard as a certified teacher and Special Education Specialist, and Robert Smith as a program coordinator and certified teacher.
Schillref expressed frustration over this hiring decision, “How does a school in such dire financial straits hire so much admin?"
Deputee demanded that he be paid for January through June 2023, despite the fact that he was not working during that time, a request the board approved.
Smith has been a focal point of contention among members of the community, Schillreff said.
It was discovered that Smith worked at Williston Basin School District as a Principal, where he was investigated for failing to report an alleged child abuse incident to child services. Smith would have been a mandatory reporter at the time. Smith was suspended without pay and later resigned from the school district after the investigation.
Schillreff met with classified staff to hear issues. The classified staff decide to have a union meeting to further discuss the issues and decide to file formal grievances against the school. In total, there are five formal grievances.
“That’s a lot,” Schillreff explained.
The grievance process usually begins with staff reaching out to the principal of the school and discussing the grievances and how to address them. Considering the principal and the superintendent are one and the same, this step was skipped.
Schillreff spoke to the school administration to move the process along in a meeting, which they agreed to, but bizarrely insisted on holding it at Perkins in Billings. The administration denied the grievances, and they were pushed onto the next step of the process. The next step was to bring it to the board to discuss at a meeting, it was here that, Schillreff said, Deputee made a veiled threat toward her.
Smith allegedly said the school will be forced to fire people if the grievances aren’t dropped, Schillreff said.
After some time looking over options, it was decided that the grievances will move to arbitration.
Schillreff confirmed that the school did not offer any reason for the closure of the school from Oct. 9 to 16. The school was closed on Oct. 2 for Indigenous People’s Day, according to the official Wyola School Facebook page.
Further, staff members who are paid an hourly wage are missing an entire week of wages as a result of the closure. Students will be forced to make up the lost days at the end of the year, and the school missed its testing window.
Deputee was arrested on a warrant and charged with 88 counts of endangering the welfare of children as a result of closing the school by the Crow Tribal Court. The court cited school closures on Oct. 10 and 11 and a board meeting scheduled for Oct. 12 that Deputee allegedly unilaterally canceled.
According to the Crow Law & Order Code knowingly causing a child to miss school is considered endangerment. The affidavit states, “The Wyola School currently has 88 students who are being denied access to a publicly funded school due to the Defendant,” explaining the number of charges against Kenneth.
Deputee bonded out, and the conditions of his release state that besides the general conditions of release, includes requirements that he must immediately open the school and is prohibited from having a firearm and from having any contact with the Wyola School Board.
His trial is scheduled for Jan. 17, 2024 in Crow Agency. If convicted Deputee faces up to $1,000 dollar fine and up to 6 months in jail.