Tribal Students Sue Feds Over ‘Shock the Conscience’ Schooling Conditions

By Corey Mitchell — January 12, 2017 2 min read
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Nine children from an Arizona tribe are suing the federal government, alleging that they, and other children enrolled in Bureau of Indian Education schools across the country have been routinely denied the right to a basic education.

Ranging in age from six to 15, the children are members of the Havasupai tribe based in and around the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Their complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona, names the Bureau of Indian Education and the U.S. Interior Department as defendants.

According to the lawsuit, Havasupai Elementary, a kindergarten through 8th grade school, shuts down for weeks at a time because there aren’t enough teachers. The school also lacks textbooks, a functioning library, and extracurricular activities, and only teaches students math and reading when it is open. That means students have no access to art, foreign language, history, science or social studies instruction.

“As a result of these shock-the-conscience deprivations, Havasupai children lack even a fighting chance at achieving academic success and reaching their full potential,” Alexis DeLaCruz, an attorney with the Native American Disability Law Center, said in a statement.

According to the complaint, Havasupai Elementary is among the worst-performing schools in the nation: Students there scored in the 1st percentile in reading and in the 3rd percentile in math, according to 2012-13 data, according to a 2014 report compiled by the Northwest Evaluation Association for the Bureau of Indian Education.

The federal civil rights complaint, filed by the Native American Disability Law Center, also alleges that the school has failed to properly evaluate and educate students with disabilities, with some of them spending as little as three hours per week in school.

The lawsuit further claims that tribal education officials have little or no say in how the children are educated and that school staff members routinely refer children, including those with disabilities, to Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officers to deal with minor behavioral incidents. One plaintiff, an 11-year-old, was prosecuted in federal court for pulling the cord out of the back of a computer monitor, the complaint states.

Lawyers for Havasupai students said children at Bureau of Indian Education schools across the country are subjected to similar, if not the same, conditions.

“The U.S. government’s longstanding failure to provide even the most basic education to Native students is a stain on our national conscience,” said Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney at Public Counsel.

Bureau of Indian Education Director Tony Dearman and the school’s principal were also named as lawsuits in the defendant. The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2014, the Obama administration published a “Blueprint for Reform,” which urged more tribal control in managing BIE schools. It also called for an agency shake-up, shifting its focus from management to a role where it provides support and resources to tribal schools. Since then, several tribes have received federal funding to take control of their schools but progress has been slow.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.