Bureau of Indian Education Failed to Educate Tribal Youth, Lawsuit Alleges

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District court today alleges that the U.S. government has failed to provide basic education services to Native American students attending Havasupai Elementary School, which is operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education.

The school is located in a remote village in Havasu Canyon along the south rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona.

The plaintiffs in the suit, nine children of the Havasupai Tribe and the Native American Disability Law Center, say that the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) — the federal agency that operates the Havasupai Elementary School — has provided an inferior education to students at the school. The federal government is required through treaty obligations and other legislation to provide equal access to educational opportunities to students at schools operated by the BIE.

“This case is the first case in the country to challenge the wholesale denial of educational opportunities to both general education and special education Native American students,” said attorney Alexis DeLaCruz of the Native American Disability Law Center during a conference call today.

Bringing the suit on behalf of nine students are Public Counsel, the Native American Disability Law Center, Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and Sacks Tierney P.A. and the ACLU of New Mexico.

Allegations are being made against the Bureau of Indian Education; United States Department of the Interior; Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior; Lawrence Roberts, principal deputy assistant secretary, Indian Affairs; Tony Dearman, director of the Bureau of Indian Education; and Jeff Williamson, principal of the Havasupai Elementary School.

The official complaint states that “federal government officials have systemically deprived Plaintiffs of meaningful access to education,” and lists several areas in which the federal government has fallen short, including failure to provide general education curriculum, denial of basic educational resources, no system to provide special education and failure to provide a full day of education to students with disabilities.

The school serves 70 students, roughly half of whom have some form of disability, according to DeLaCruz.

One of the plaintiffs, Frank C., read a statement about his grandson, Stephen, during the conference call.

“Because of the BIE’s failure, Stephen is in the sixth grade but does not have basic skills or knowledge,” Frank said. “He is struggling to read and write after spending nearly seven years at the school. He can barely write a sentence.”

Stephen has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and special education needs, which the school has never addressed. At 11 years old Stephen was prosecuted in a federal court for pulling a cable out of a computer monitor, cited in the complaint as an example of the BIE’s reliance on excessive discipline and law enforcement.

Currently Havasupai Elementary School only provides instruction in the areas of math and English. Students receive no lessons in science, history, social studies, nor do they have the opportunity to participate in arts, music or culturally relevant instruction.

Havasupai’s students perform well below average. BIE data shows that in the 2012-13 school year, Havasupai Elementary School students performed at the first percentile in reading and third percentile in math, placing the school dead last by a considerable margin in these two areas among the BIE schools.

Because they are so poorly prepared for high school when they leave Havasupai Elementary, students cannot meet entrance and proficiency requirements for admission to BIE secondary schools.

Only 20 percent of Havasupai Elementary students go on to graduate high school.

“The BIE’s failure to provide a real education for Havasupai children is not only deeply upsetting, it’s a clear violation of federal law,” said Bryan Heckenlively of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP. “The BIE’s violation of federal law is equally clear in the area of special education … the BIE takes students with disabilities and excludes them from the school, restricts their instructional hours and refers them to law enforcement when they’re disruptive for reasons that are related to their disability.”

Those advocating on behalf of the students hope the suit will improve the education of all students in BIE schools across the country.

“While the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are all from one elementary school, the lawsuit seeks a declaration that the BIE comply with federal laws and federal statutes mandating equal education in BIE schools, and declaration that the federal government is responsible for ensuring that student with disabilities in BIE-operated schools receive the services that they’re entitled to under federal disability law,” said Kathryn Eidmann of Public Counsel during the conference call.

Other issues cited in the complaint include excessive discipline, abusive law enforcement involvement, failure to provide wellness and mental health support, and exclusion of the community from school decision-making.

The complaint also notes that the school frequently shuts down during the school year due to lack of teachers and other qualified staff, sometimes leaving janitors and secretaries to cover classrooms.

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