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Judge pares down students' suit against the Bureau of Indian Education

Felicia Fonseca

Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A federal judge has pared down a lawsuit that accuses the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education of failing to adequately provide for students on a small Arizona reservation.

Only one of the six claims remain after a ruling this week by U.S. District Judge Steven Logan in Phoenix. 

The lawsuit filed in 2017 sought systematic reforms of the Bureau of Indian Education, an agency that oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states but directly operates less than one-third of them. It focused on Havasupai Elementary School deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon.

Attorneys for several students wanted to force the Bureau of Indian Education to provide services for those with special needs, a thorough curriculum, culturally relevant education and staff training to respond to trauma. They argued the bureau wasn't following U.S. Department of Education and other federal regulations.

Logan ruled Monday that the federal agency isn't required to because the Havasupai school is under the Department of Interior and granted the defendants' request for summary judgment on some claims. On others, Logan said the plaintiffs didn't identify a distinct Bureau of Indian Education action to challenge.

Kathryn Eidmann, an attorney for the students and the Native American Disability Law Center, said Thursday that she would challenge the ruling.

"The effect of that ruling would be to say that every child in the United States is entitled to those protections except for Native students attending BIE schools," she said. "And that just can't be."

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Logan also dismissed two of the plaintiffs from the case because they no longer attend the elementary school.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs didn't immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

In a November court hearing, DOJ attorney Lisa Ann Olson said the Bureau of Indian Education's efforts to provide the students with proper schooling have fallen short but it is doing its best. She said the agency faces obstacles beyond its control, including recruiting and retaining staff, housing employees and overcoming the isolation of the reservation that's reachable only by mule, foot or helicopter.

"There's no simple command that's going to solve all of the problems," she said. "And if solutions are offered, we will eagerly accept them to the extent they're legally permissible and feasible."

The Havasupai reservation known for its towering blue-green waterfalls is one of the most remote in the continental U.S. Children often are sent to boarding school or off the reservation for high school because they have no option to finish school at home.

Havasupai Elementary School has long been one of the lowest-performing of the BIE-run schools, a situation that Eidmann said has only worsened while the lawsuit makes its way through court. The students' attorneys say the area is beset with high levels of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, family violence and low literacy levels. 

All of the roughly 70 elementary school students qualify for free or reduced lunch and most are limited in English and math proficiency, according to the lawsuit. Most students have special education needs, the plaintiffs' attorneys say.

The remaining claim in the lawsuit seeks to address a system for special needs that the students' attorneys say keeps them from getting the same access to education as others. The attorneys say the school has limited or no occupational, physical and speech therapists, and mental health and support staff.

The lawsuit says the school often sent students with special needs home early or called police to deal with bad behavior related to their conditions.