Native Americans Sue Federal Gov’t for Inadequate Schools

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Native Americans Sue Federal Gov’t for Inadequate Schools

In a blistering complaint that recites a long and continuing history of the neglect of schools for native American children, nine students of the Havasupai tribe in Arizona and the Native American Disability Law Center filed suit earlier this month in the federal district court in Arizona against the federal Bureau of Indian Education, the U.S. Department of the Interior and a number of federal officials. Stephen C., et. al v. Bureau of Indian Education, et al. Among the allegations in the 100 page complaint are charges that:

  • The only subject areas in which the Havasupai Elementary School provides instruction are math, reading, and writing.  There is no science, history, social studies, foreign language, arts, or physical education curriculum.  
  • Persistent teacher and staff vacancies have caused the school to shut down for weeks at a time, and the vacancies are covered by non-certificated personnel, such as the school janitor or secretary, or by temporary staff who rotate in and out on two-week details.    
  • Havasupai Elementary School lacks adequate numbers of textbooks, a functioning school library, and any extracurricular activities, such as sports, arts, music, or clubs.
  • Although approximately one half of the students at the school have been identified as students with disabilities, Havasupai Elementary School has no system for delivering the specialized instruction, related services, and accommodations necessary to access public education.  Instead, students with disabilities are routinely physically excluded from school and subjected to punitive discipline and police prosecution on the basis of their disabilities.   

Legally, education of native American children is the responsibility of the federal government and not of the state in which they live or the tribe to which they belong. Applicable federal statutes and regulations  obligate the Bureau of Indian Education to provide  native American children  “with educational opportunities that equal or exceed those for all other students in the United States.”  Other statutes and regulations similarly refer to the government’s  obligation to provide education that is “adequate,” “comprehensive,” “of the highest quality,” and that meets “the basic elementary and secondary educational needs.” Students with disabilities are also entitled to special education and related services under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These statutory and regulatory obligations are reinforced by the federal government’s “trust” responsibility for native American students

The plaintiffs, who are represented by Public Counsel, a public interest law center in Los Angeles, the ACLU of New Mexico and the Los Angeles firm of Munger, Tolles & Olsen, are seeking extensive declaratory, injunctive relief and appropriate compensatory and remedial education for all plaintiffs, including those who previously attended but no longer attend Havasupai Elementary School.

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