A fourth grade class from Pine Ridge wrote to state lawmakers this school year urging them to reconsider their support for a bill introduced by Gov. Kristi Noem that targets out-of-state protesters of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Their letter campaign was one of several hundred projects that classrooms from across the country submitted to a competition held by a national youth organization that promotes civic engagement. Now that same group, Design for Change USA, has recognized students from Loneman Day School in Oglala by inviting several of them to a global conference in Rome.
Responding to the so-called anti-riot-boosting act, which the Legislature overwhelmingly approved in March, came about through conversations that students had with their families and neighbors, according to their teacher, Kat Hyslop.
“Our conversations revolved around what the importance of land is to our students in relation to their culture,” Hyslop said.
Hyslop said the Keystone XL pipeline, which is planned to run through several counties in western South Dakota including Pennington and Meade, came up frequently in talks her students had with their communities. Her classroom then invited Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the Rapid City nonprofit group NDN Collective, to speak more about the project.
It was Tilsen who taught the children more about the anti-protest laws, Hyslop said, which instituted civil penalties for those who contribute money to or encourage protesters who engage in violence. A related law establishes a legal funding source to pursue "riot-boosters" that is sourced from local, state and federal sources as well as from TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada.
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Those found guilty of breaking the new law face a maximum prison sentence of 25 years. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing South Dakota over the laws, which the organization says violate the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
At Tilsen's suggestion, Hyslop and her classroom organized a letter-writing effort that thanked state legislators who opposed the bill and urged those who supported it to rethink their position. The letters were mailed May 17, she said, and have not been responded to as of last week.
The development of the proposed pipeline — which according to a project description would link existing pipeline terminals in Canada to those in Kansas — is a complex and hotly debated topic, but Hyslop said her students "definitely understand the implications of both sides." She said that while her students understand that bringing the pipeline through South Dakota could create jobs, communities that oppose the move need to be heard.
"My students are young, but they’re brilliant, and a lot of these topics that we cover are actually pretty digestible," she said.
Currently, Hyslop is fundraising to send eight of her students and five adult chaperones to Rome in November for the week-long conference. As of Friday, her GoFundMe page had raised less than $1,000 of a $11,000 goal.