The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. government has ‘dismally failed’ to educate Native American children, lawsuit alleges

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is the ancestral home of the Havasupai people. (Dina Mishev)

The federal government has repeatedly acknowledged and even lamented its failure to provide adequate education for Native American children. Now, nine Native children are taking to the courts to force Washington to take action.

The children are all members of the Havasupai Nation, whose ancestral homelands are in and around the Grand Canyon. They attend an elementary school that is run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education and is, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday, hardly recognizable as a school at all.

Havasupai Elementary School does not teach any subjects other than English and math, according to the complaint; there is no instruction in science, history, social studies, foreign language, or the arts. There aren’t enough textbooks or a functioning library or any after-school sports teams or clubs, according to the complaint. There are so many and such frequent teacher vacancies that students are allegedly taught often by non-certified staff, including the janitor, or they are taught by a series of substitutes who rotate in for two-week stints. The school shuts down altogether for weeks at a time.

The school has no system for evaluating or serving children with disabilities, who comprise about half of the student body, according to the complaint. And school officials are so incapable of meeting the needs of students with special needs that they often require those children to be educated at home, attending school as little as three hours per week.

Washington is taking notice of crumbling Native American schools

The school excludes tribal community members from decisions about their children’s education, according to the complaint, and does not address Havasupai students’ unique cultural needs, as federal law requires. And in a community wracked by the historical trauma of displacement and discrimination, and the day-to-day trauma of poverty, the school allegedly failed to provide counseling for years and does not provide the mental health supports that children desperately need.

“Federal law requires that the federal government provide Native children with educational opportunities that equal or exceed those for all other students in the United States,” the complaint says, alleging violations of the Indian Education Act, the Rehabilitation Act and a host of other federal laws. “The U.S. government has dismally failed to fulfill these responsibilities.”

Lawyers for the Havasupai children said that while the conditions at Havasupai Elementary are extreme, they are not uncommon. The lawsuit could establish an important precedent that the federal government has failed to meet its legal obligations and must do better for all children enrolled in Bureau of Indian Education schools, they said.

“This is a crisis across BIE schools that the federal government has acknowledged again and again,” said Kathryn Eidmann, a lawyer at Public Counsel, which is representing the children along with the Native American Disability Law Center, a co-plaintiff, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and two private firms.

The 95-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona, names the Bureau of Indian Education and the U.S. Interior Department as defendants, as well as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; Lawrence Roberts, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs; BIE Director Tony Dearman; and Jeff Williamson, principal of Havasupai Elementary School.

A spokeswoman said the Interior Department does not comment on pending litigation.

The Obama administration has been candid about the federal government’s failure to meet the needs of nearly 50,000 Native young people in nearly 200 schools the Bureau of Indian Education oversees.

“Indian education is an embarrassment to you and to us,” Jewell told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2013.

Obama budget includes $1 billion for Native American education

As a result of the federal government’s failure to provide even the most basic of educational services, Havasupai Elementary is the lowest-performing Bureau of Indian Education school in the country, according to the complaint. Its students scored in the 1st percentile in reading — the lowest possible — and in the 3rd percentile in math, according to 2012-2013 data, the most recent available.

“Many Havasupai Elementary students have never learned basic information, such as what the states are and where they are located, the difference between North America and South America, and how to spell simple words,” the complaint says.

About 70 students in grades K through 8 are currently enrolled at Havasupai Elementary. It is located in the remote village of Supai, on the Havasupai reservation at the base of Havasu Canyon, which is part of the Grand Canyon, about 100 miles northwest of Flagstaff, Ariz. Supai is a popular desert tourist destination, reachable only by taking a helicopter or walking eight miles along a dirt trail.

“The United States government has confined us to this remote location. The United States government promised quality education to our people,” Don E. Watahomigie, chairman of the Havasupai tribal council, told reporters Thursday. “The United States government failed on this promise, and as a result our people suffer.”

The village’s first school was built in 1895, but it offered instruction only for limited grade levels and eventually was closed, according to the complaint. For much of the 20th Century, Havasupai children — like Native American children across the country — had no real choice but to enroll in faraway government-run boarding schools if they wanted a decent education.

The complaint alleges that the boarding schools have become notorious for their efforts to assimilate Native American students into white culture, punishing them for speaking Native languages and practicing Native traditions. The Havasupai continued fighting to educate their children in their own community, and in 1976 won the right to reopen and operate a K-8 school in Supai.

The tribal-run school emphasized Havasupai language and culture, and by 2006, the Havasupai language was spoken fluently by more than nine in 10 tribal members — a higher rate than most other tribes at the time, according to the complaint.

The tribe turned over operation of the school to the federal government in 2002 because it didn’t have enough financial resources or technical support to implement the new and sweeping No Child Left Behind Act, according to the complaint.

In Alaska, massive achievement gaps separate Native and white students

The school in Havasupai only goes through the eighth grade, so students still must leave their community to attend high school, either enrolling in a public school district or applying to a Bureau of Indian Education boarding school. Because the Havasupai school is so poor, students are often ill-prepared to gain admission to or succeed in high school, and just an estimated 20 percent of Havasupai Elementary School students end up graduating from high school, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs are asking for the court to force the federal government to ensure that students get the education to which they are legally entitled. They also want a declaration that the BIE’s running of the school has broken federal laws, a declaration they hope will force the BIE to improve its work across the country. And they want the federal government to provide compensatory and remedial services to make up for the education they have lost.

Laila R., mother of two of the plaintiffs, said she had to make the difficult choice of moving her family out of their home in Supai to get the education her sons deserve. They are years behind their Arizona peers, she said.

“I hope this lawsuit changes things at the school,” she said. “Because what’s been happening there for years is wrong.”