Court: Trauma Impedes Native American Education Programs, Feds Must Address It

Havasupai Elementary School, an Arizona school for Native American children
Havasupai Elementary School. Photo: Indian Country Media Network

A federal court has ruled, for the first time, that the federal government is obligated to meet the mental health and wellness needs of Native American students as part of its educational obligations to those children.

The families of nine children, who are members of the Havasupai tribe, filed a lawsuit against the federal government in January 2017 for failing students who attend Havasupai Elementary, located in the remote village of Supai in the Grand Canyon.

The federal government had sought to dismiss a number of the claims brought in the suit, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona upheld many of the original counts. The court did, however, dismiss five of the nine children’s cases because those children no longer attend Havasupai Elementary.

“This is a huge victory for Native students and their families because for the first time ever a federal court supports the idea that the federal government has an obligation to meet the mental health and wellness needs of students attending its schools,” said Alexis DeLaCruz, staff attorney at Native American Disability Law Center, in a statement.

The court’s ruling recognizes the impact complex trauma and adverse childhood experiences have on a child’s ability to learn, to the extent that such children may be disabled and require special education programs. The court also found that the government itself had recognized that the Havasupai students had disabilities and were in need of special education, though the government had contended that it did not have that knowledge and should not, therefore, be held accountable for providing related services.

The court ruled that the students in question were disabled based on “their exposure to complex trauma and adversity, including, but not limited to: ‘experiences of physical and sexual violence, involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, alcohol and substance abuse in the family and community, extreme poverty, denial of access to education, and historical trauma.”

This, the court found, constituted physical impairment under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The allegations were being made against the Bureau of Indian Education; United States Department of the Interior; Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior; Lawrence Roberts, principal deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of Indian Affairs; Tony Dearman, director of the Bureau of Indian Education; and Jeff Williamson, principal of the Havasupai Elementary School.

The original complaint stated that “federal government officials have systemically deprived Plaintiffs of meaningful access to education,” and listed several areas in which the federal government has fallen short, including failure to provide general education curriculum, denial of basic educational resources, no system to provide special education and failure to provide a full day of education to students with disabilities.

The Bureau of Indian Education operates Havasupai Elementary and oversees more than 180 schools across the country. The school serves 70 students, roughly half of whom have some form of disability, according to DeLaCruz. Muriel Coochwytewa-Uqualla, chairwoman of the Havasupai Tribal Council, said on a press call today that Havaupai Elementary currently has three teachers.

The school only provides instruction in the areas of math and English, meaning students receive no lessons in science, history, social studies, nor do they have the opportunity to participate in arts, music or culturally relevant instruction.

“The ruling addresses the consequences of historical oppression that have for generations adversely impacted Native peoples, depriving them of both educational opportunities and basic resources necessary for health and well-being,” reads the plaintiffs’ statement in response to the ruling.

Bringing the suit on behalf of nine students are Public Counsel, the Native American Disability Law Center, Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and Sacks Tierney P.A., and the ACLU of New Mexico.

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Christie Renick
About Christie Renick 119 Articles
Tucson-based southwest editor and vice president of Fostering Media Connections. Reach her at or follow @christiejrenick.