Havasu Canyon is home to turquoise waterfalls, billowing cottonwood trees, and red sandstone cliffs that attract thousands of tourists each year. It’s also home to the Havasupai people, a federally recognized Native American tribe allegedly subject to education conditions so dreadful it’s as if many of the reservation’s children don’t attend school at all.
That’s according to a lawsuit filed in Arizona’s U.S. District Court on Thursday, which accuses the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)—the federal agency responsible for funding and overseeing tribal schools—of repeatedly failing to improve the learning environment at Havasupai Elementary School. Despite federal obligations to offer a diverse curriculum that incorporates the Havasupai culture and language, the suit contends, the school doesn’t even teach subjects beyond reading and math. Extracurricular activities are nonexistent, as are special-education services—even though roughly half of the school’s 70 students have special needs. Students are repeatedly suspended or referred to law enforcement, with one of the plaintiffs attending class for just 20 percent of the school year when he was 8 years old. The school is so understaffed, according to the suit, that the school janitor occasionally fills in as a teacher. Sometimes it allegedly shuts down entirely.
“The conditions at the Havasupai School deny to these students fundamental access to education that children across the country simply take for granted,” said Kathryn Eidmann, a staff attorney at the pro bono law firm Public Counsel and one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, during a phone call with reporters. “This institutional disregard communicates an unmistakable message: that the government believes these children are disposable, that their education is a responsibility that the government would rather wash its hands of.” Students at Havasupai Elementary performed at the first percentile in reading and the third percentile in math, according to 2012-13 federal data cited in the complaint, meaning it placed last among the BIE’s 183 schools.
It’s unclear whether the allegations will be substantiated. Both Jeff Williamson, the principal of Havasupai Elementary and a defendant in the case, and a spokeswoman for the BIE, which falls under the U.S. Department of the Interior, declined to comment. Still, the lawsuit is likely to bring greater attention to problems that have dogged BIE schools across the country for decades—challenges the Obama administration has sought, but struggled, to address. Arne Duncan, the former U.S. education secretary, once described the BIE as “the epitome of broken” and “utterly bankrupt.” Even the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, has acknowledged the bureau’s shortcomings, calling Indian education “an embarrassment.” In demanding that the BIE commit to providing a quality education to all its students, the case, according to Eidmann, wouldn’t only be “a potential prototype for BIE schools all across the country”—it would also establish “a precedent that applies to students in every BIE school.”
Federal law requires that the BIE provide education at least as good as that offered to non-Native students, but it’s well-established that that’s rarely the case. Graduation rates on reservations are among the lowest of all student subgroups—the graduation rate for Native American students broadly is just 69 percent. At BIE schools, it’s 53 percent. Eight in 10 Native students are not proficient in reading, according to 2007 federal data cited in the complaint, and children at BIE schools perform significantly worse than their Native peers at regular public schools. “These issues that the children and the community of the Havasupai face are endemic to the BIE,” Alexis DeLaCruz, a staff attorney at the Native American Disability Law Center and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said during the call. While the vast majority of Native American students attend traditional public schools, the BIE serves nearly 50,000 children. The BIE published a “Blueprint for Reform” in 2014, but change has been slow.
The alleged conditions described in the new complaint have long been the norm for the Havasupai community—and not because no one has pushed the BIE to change things, critics of the bureau say. Don Watahomigie, the chairman of the Havasupai Tribal Council, said on the call that the council has repeatedly approached the BIE to little avail. Laila R. (the suit does not include full last names), whose two sons attended Havasupai Elementary, said during the call that she’s tried for years to improve conditions at the school, writing letters to bureau officials in Washington, D.C., and even suing the agency. “Nothing works,” she said. Her sons fell so far behind, she continued, that she decided to move them out of the reservation.
Instruction aside, the lawsuit, in describing excessive and harsh discipline practices, hints at why so many Native Americans end up in the criminal-justice system. Frank C., the grandfather of one of the plaintiffs, said on the call that his 11-year-old grandson, who has special needs, was suspended and prosecuted in federal court simply for pulling wires out of a computer monitor.
Children who are disciplined in school are far more likely to end up in prison as adults; it goes without saying that being disciplined as a child via formal law enforcement has similarly deleterious, if not worse, effects. The alleged practices at Havasupai Elementary are, the suit contends, characteristic of those at tribal schools across the country. Indeed, a March 2014 U.S. Department of Education report found that Native Americans across the country are disciplined at disproportionate rates. Unsurprisingly, they’re also incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average.
The Havasupai Reservation lies at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s so remote that one can only access it by hiking, or riding a horse, or helicoptering in; the village doesn’t have any cars. But its remoteness, Watahomigie said, shouldn’t be “used as a tool by BIE to ignore our educational demands or to turn a blind eye to our needs or to [justify] providing substandard educational services to our people.”