Ruling Could Reform Agency for Native American Education

By Press, Felicia Fonseca | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), April 6, 2018 | Go to article overview

Ruling Could Reform Agency for Native American Education


Press, Felicia Fonseca, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Stephen C. has been taught only math and English at a U.S.-run elementary school for Native American children deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon. Teachers have left midyear, and he repeatedly faces suspension and arrest for behavior his attorneys say is linked to a disability stemming from traumatic experiences.

The 12-year-old is among children from Arizona's remote and impoverished Havasupai Reservation who are a step closer to their push for systematic reform of the U.S. agency that oversees tribal education, alleging in a lawsuit it ignored complaints about an understaffed school, a lack of special education and a deficient curriculum.

The students' attorneys say they won a major legal victory recently when a federal court agreed that childhood adversity and trauma can be learning disabilities, a tactic the same law firm used in crime-ridden Compton, California. They say the case could have widespread effects for Native children in more than 180 schools nationwide overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education and in schools with large Native populations.

"Education is our lifeline and our future for our kids — and all students, not just down here, but nationally," Havasupai Chairwoman Muriel Coochwytewa said. The Bureau of Indian Education has "an obligation to teach our children. And if that's not going on, then our children will become failures, and we don't want that."

Havasupai students face adversity and generational trauma from repeated broken promises from the U.S. government, efforts to eradicate Native culture and tradition, discrimination and the school's tendency to call police to deal with behavioral problems, attorneys say.

U.S. District Judge Steven Logan wrote in a late March ruling that the students' lawyers adequately alleged "complex trauma" and adversity can result in physiological effects leading to a physical impairment. He moved the case forward, denying Justice Department requests to dismiss some of the allegations but agreeing to drop plaintiffs from the lawsuit who no longer attend Havasupai Elementary School.

Noshene Ranjbar, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona, said medical literature has expanded in the past 20 years to include trauma that isn't linked only to singular events.

In Native communities she's worked with in the Dakotas and Arizona, "they agree the root of everything they suffer with is this unresolved grief, loss, trauma, anger, decades of disappointment on a huge scale," she said.

When students act out, schools too often turn to suspension, expulsion or arrest instead of finding what's driving the bad behavior, she said. Usually, it's "a hurt human being that is using the wrong means to cope," Ranjbar said.

The Public Counsel law firm pressing the Havasupai case also sued the Compton Unified School District — which is majority black and Latino — in 2015 over disability services for students with complex trauma. …

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