Sacks Tierney Represents Nine Havasupai Students and the Native American Disability Law Center in Federal Lawsuit

January 23, 2017 David C. Tierney Judith M. Dworkin General

The civil rights action against the federal government alleges failure to provide basic elementary and secondary education to Native American children.

On January 12, 2017, in conjunction with attorneys from three other law firms in three states, Sacks Tierney attorneys Judy Dworkin and David Tierney filed a federal civil rights action in U.S. Federal District Court in Phoenix on behalf of nine Havasupai students and the Native American Disability Law Center. The complaint alleges that the federal government has failed to provide to Havasupai students equal educational opportunities afforded to other students throughout the United States.

The suit is the first federal civil rights action ever filed to address a wholesale denial of educational opportunities for both general education and special education of Native American students. The 94-page complaint details a “knowing and longstanding failure” by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) to enforce federal statutes and regulations to provide Native American children with a basic education, a system of special education, and necessary wellness and mental health services. The lawsuit’s allegations include:

  • Failure to provide general education curriculum. The only subject areas at the Havasupai Elementary School (Grades K-8) are reading, writing and math. Havasupai children receive no instruction in science, history, social studies, foreign language, arts or physical education, and the school does not provide any culturally relevant instruction.

  • Teacher vacancies and chronic understaffing. Due to insufficient numbers of teachers, the school has been shut down during the academic year for weeks at a time. Classrooms have been run by non-certified personnel – including a janitor and a school secretary – and by short-term temporary staff.

  • Denial of basic instructional materials. The school does not have sufficient textbooks or a functioning library or offer any extracurricular activities.

  • No system to provide special education to students with disabilities. Because the school lacks the capacity and trained staff to deliver appropriate education and accommodations for children with disabilities, these students are routinely physically excluded from school and punitively disciplined on account of their disabilities.

As a result of these and other failures by the BIE to provide educational opportunities, Havasupai children are denied basic opportunities for academic and occupational success. According to the most current BIE data publicly available, Havasupai children attending the BIE-operated school during the 2012-2013 school year performed at only the 1st percentile in reading and the 3rd percentile in math. BIE data also shows that, the longer they attend the school, Havasupai children fall further behind their peers.

“As a law firm that has represented Arizonans for the past 55 years, we are pleased to be part of the effort to secure access to meaningful education for Native students in Havasupai. Quality education for all children within the state is vital to the future of Arizona,” stated Ms. Dworkin, Sacks Tierney’s managing partner.

Also representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Public Counsel (the nation’s largest pro bono law firm), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, and the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.