Havasupai Native Children Sue U.S. Government For Right to Quality Education

By Sameer Rao Jan 13, 2017

Nine Native children from the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Supai, Arizona, sued the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education in U.S. District Court yesterday (January 12), alleging that it does not provide the quality education guaranteed by federal regulations.

"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," reads the introduction to Stephen C. V. Bureau of Indian Affairs. "The government must provide for not only the basic elementary and secondary education needs of Native students, but also the unique educational and cultural academic needs of these children. Further, the government must ensure that Native students with disabilities are not deprived of meaningful access to education. The U.S. government has dismally failed to fulfill these responsibilities."

Mic reports that the children are current and former students of the Bureau-operated Havasupai Elementary School. The complaint, filed with assistance from legal advocacy group The Native American Disability Law Center, accuses the Bureau of neglecting the students’ rights through various systemic deficiencies, including the following: 

  • No instruction in subjects othr than math, reading and writing
  • No Havasupai-language instruction
  • Failure to provide students with disabilities a full school day or specialized education
  • Sending students, including those with disabilities, to Bureau law enforcement for minor infractions
  • Persistent understaffing and vacancies, leading to weeks-long school closures
  • Excluding the Havasupai community from school decisions

The lawsuit describes several alleged instances of how these issues adversely affect plaintiffs, who range in age from 6 to 15 years old. One "was prosecuted in federal court for pulling the cord out of the back of a computer monitor." A teacher allegedly forcibly restrained and sat on another student, despite his pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

Havasupai Elementary School is the only K-8 school on the reservation, which the complaint connects to historic policies designed to oppress Native peoples. Those who wish to further their education must either relocate to a public school outside the community or go to Bureau-operated boarding schools—part of a policy the complaint says "was used in an attempt to dismantle Native families, tear apart communities, eradicate Native culture and ‘civilize’ Native children."

The school’s principal and the Department of the Interior (DOI) are listed as co-defendants. Indian Country Media Today reported in 2013 that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (also a co-defendant), called Native education "an embarrassment" when she testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Neither the Bureau nor the DOI issued any statements on the lawsuit.