Havasupai students who sued for better education reach settlement with federal government

A federal judge approved a settlement between the federal Bureau of Indian Education and a group of Havasupai students who sued for better schooling, marking the first concrete result in a long-running case that could improve education for thousands of Native American students with disabilities. 



a sign on the side of a building: In 2017, Havasupai students and families sued the BIE for “longstanding educational deprivations.” A judge ruled in an ongoing case that the BIE violated its responsibility to provide students with disabilities education through services like individualized special education plans.


© Alden Woods/The Republic
In 2017, Havasupai students and families sued the BIE for “longstanding educational deprivations.” A judge ruled in an ongoing case that the BIE violated its responsibility to provide students with disabilities education through services like individualized special education plans.

The suit was filed in January 2017 by students and their families at Havasupai Elementary School, which sits on the Havasupai reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It accused the federally operated school of “longstanding educational deprivations,” including chronic understaffing that forced educators to cover as many as three grades at once and the denial of special education services.

The settlement resolves only the claims centered on the education provided to students with disabilities. It makes permanent a newly developed BIE policy that ensures all students with disabilities in BIE-operated schools have equal access to their education, requires an independent monitor to review the school’s compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and provides all 12 student plaintiffs $20,000 for compensatory educational services. 

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Section 504 bans discrimination against students with disabilities, and requires that schools provide accommodations to ensure those students have access to an equal education. 

“This historic agreement has paved a path forward for my three children to have educational opportunities they were deprived of at Havasupai Elementary School,” Billie P., the mother of three students named in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “While nothing can ever make up for the time they lost, we now have an opportunity to look to the future and get them the education they have always been entitled to and deserve.”

The students and their families filed the lawsuit under pseudonyms.

One of Billie’s children, a teenager identified as Durell P., was consistently denied accommodations for his learning disability and mental health needs and eventually barred from attending school full-time, according to his mother and the complaint.

“If you were to see this at any school down here (in Phoenix), it would be broadcasted all over the news,” Durell said after a November 2019 court hearing. “It would probably be shut down.”

TRIBAL SCHOOLS: Government fails to give Native students adequate education

The settlement does not affect claims that accused BIE of failing to provide basic educational services, which U.S. District Judge Steven P. Logan ruled against last year. Attorneys for the students said in a statement they will appeal that ruling. 

BIE, which did not immediately return requests for comment, did not admit fault in the settlement. But Logan ruled in May that the agency had violated Section 504. 

Lisa Olson, an attorney for the federal government, said in a November hearing that the agency’s efforts at Havasupai Elementary “have been unsatisfactory and they have fallen short.” She argued that BIE was hamstrung by budget constraints and the school’s remote location.

Havasupai Elementary is the only school in Supai, a small community that is accessible only by helicopter or an eight-mile hike into the Grand Canyon. It enrolls about 65 students. 

The school is operated by BIE, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that operates about 50 schools and dormitories nationwide and provides funding and oversight for about 130 others.

Earlier this year, an investigation by The Arizona Republic and ProPublica found that BIE had not corrected deficiencies after repeated warnings that it wasn’t providing a quality education to the more than 46,000 students enrolled in its schools. 

“The Bureau of Indian Education must be held accountable for how they manage schools,” Emily Curran-Huberty, an attorney representing the students, said in a statement. “They are responsible for the education of thousands of students across the country, students with different abilities and backgrounds that must be accommodated.

“This agreement is an important step towards addressing that and shows that students and parents will not waver in their determination to get the education they deserve.”

Reach reporter Alden Woods at [email protected] or 602-444-8829. Follow him on Twitter @ac_woods

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Havasupai students who sued for better education reach settlement with federal government

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