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Protest camp school operates without state approval

From the Pipeline Protest series
  • Updated

The Defenders of Water School opened in September at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The camp has taken on a semi-permanent life as protesters await court decisions and the school is intended to give children purposeful days.

A makeshift school at a protest camp near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is operating without state approval, according to State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.

In a Friday letter addressed to the tribal council, including Chairman Dave Archambault II, Baesler said the school — called the Defenders of Water School at Seven Council Fires Camp — is operating illegally and must secure state approval.

Baesler said in a phone interview Tuesday she's working with the tribal council to inform them of what it needs to do to become an approved operating school that meets state requirements. The school must adhere to five operating requirements, including having teachers licensed to teach in only their subject area and teach curriculum required under North Dakota Century Code.

In the meantime, Baesler said she's encouraging those students at the camp to enroll in state-approved schools, including Mandan and Solen school districts, which have agreed to bus students from the camp. Solen Superintendent Justin Fryer said, since last month, the district started sending a bus to the camp to pick up 14 students and bring them to Cannon Ball Elementary and Solen High School.

The camp is located within the Mandan School District, which already has a bus that travels there to pick up children who attend Mandan schools

“My major priority in this whole situation is to ensure these students are enrolled in an approved enrolled school, and that their educational well being is being attended to," Baesler said.

Thousands of people — children and adults — have flocked to the encampment located on the north bank of the Cannonball River in the past several months to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The Defenders of Water School was established in August and had about 40 students on its first day, from preschool children to 16-year-olds. The Department of Public Instruction has heard from the Standing Rock Tribe that there are about 40 students there, Baesler said. It's not clear how many are North Dakota residents or from other states.

"With them living in our state, they become our students," Baesler said.

The process to get a new school approved is "lengthy," according to Baesler, who said she didn't want students there to lose out on any learning time. 

Archambault did not respond Tuesday to request for a comment.

"Until they meet the requirements, or work towards meeting those requirements, (the Education Standards and Practices Board) can offer some provisional licenses, but until they meet all five of those requirements, I can’t approve it," Baesler said.

Baesler said other issues at other schools in the area, in addition to the school at the protest camp, has been "on our radar" since the start of the school year in September.

She said she's reached out to superintendents in Solen, Cannon Ball, Fort Yates, Flasher, St. Anthony and Mandan to hear their concerns about how they've been impacted by protests. Some districts have asked for help with enrollment — students coming from out-of-state, and what to do if they want to come to their schools. Transportation for staff members, who often use roads that have been closed due to the protests, has been an issue, too, she said.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or


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