Disability, Civil Rights Advocates File Lawsuit on Behalf of Students in Native American School

Havasupai children standing on a dirt road

by Andy Jones
January 19, 2017

The Native American Disability Law Center and nine members of the Havasupai Tribe commenced a federal lawsuit [PDF] against the federal Bureau of Indian Education on January 12, citing widespread failure to provide educational opportunities to students at an elementary school on an Arizona reservation.

Havasupai Elementary School is one of 153 schools nationwide operated and financed by the BIE. Under federal law, the BIE, created by Congress in 1972, must provide students at these schools with “educational opportunities that equal or exceed those for all other students in the United States.”

According to the lawsuit, the student’s educational curriculum is limited just to math, reading and writing. As such, students are offered no access to science, history, social studies, foreign language, art, physical education, or any culturally relevant instruction.

Although about half of the school’s 70 students have disabilities, special education and mental health services are nonexistent, the lawsuit asserts. Among the many other allegations in the 97-page complaint, the plaintiffs argue that the school is is understaffed, lacks basic educational resources, subjects students to excessive punishments and is over reliant on law enforcement involvement.

During the 2012-13 school year, students at the school performed in the 1st percentile in reading and the 3rd percentile in math, by far the worst of any BIE school.

“As NADLC learned long ago through our work with this community, the Havasupai school has been repeatedly neglected by the BIE,” NADLC attorney Alexis DeLaCruz said in a news release. “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.

“This is an eminently fixable problem. It is time for the BIE to step up and fix the problems so that all Havasupai children, regardless of disability, are immediately provided the equal educational opportunities they rightfully deserve.”

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, is the “first federal civil rights action ever filed to address a wholesale denial of educational opportunities for both the general education and special education of Native American students,” according to the news release.

Assisting the NADLC with the litigation are attorneys from the ACLU of New Mexico, Public Counsel, Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and Sacks Tierney P.A.

Disability Rights Washington, the designated protection and advocacy agency in Washington, and the Native American Law Center are members of the National Disability Rights Network.