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The Longstanding Crisis Facing Tribal Schools

Havasu Canyon is home to turquoise waterfalls, billowing cottonwood trees, and red sandstone cliffs that attract thousands of tourists each year. It’s also home to the Havasupai people, a federally recognized Native American tribe allegedly subject to education conditions so dreadful it’s as if many of the reservation’s children don’t attend school at all.

That’s according to a lawsuit filed in Arizona’s U.S. District Court on Thursday, which accuses the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)—the federal agency responsible for funding and overseeing tribal schools—of repeatedly failing to improve the learning environment at Havasupai Elementary School. Despite federal obligations to offer a diverse curriculum that incorporates the Havasupai culture and language, the suit contends, the school doesn’t even teach subjects beyond reading and math. Extracurricular activities are nonexistent, as are special-education services—even though roughly half of the school’s 70 students have special needs. Students are repeatedly suspended or referred to law enforcement, with one of the plaintiffs attending class for just 20 percent of the school year when he was 8 years old. The school is so understaffed, according to the suit, that the school janitor occasionally fills in as a teacher. Sometimes it allegedly shuts down entirely.

“The conditions at the Havasupai School deny to these students fundamental access to education that children across the country simply take for granted,” said Kathryn Eidmann, a staff attorney at the pro bono law firm Public Counsel and one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, during a phone call with reporters. “This institutional disregard communicates an unmistakable message: that the government believes these children are disposable, that their education is a responsibility that the government would rather wash its hands of.”