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Disabled students forced into manual labor for little or no pay at Rhode Island school

Disabled students forced into manual labor for little or no pay at Rhode Island school
An investigation into unusual practices at a school serving disabled students in the state of Rhode Island has led to shocking allegations of forced manual labor under a practice the school designated “sheltered workshops.”

The Harold H. Birch Vocational School in Providence, Rhode Island, which operates within the Mount Pleasant High School, is now accused of having violated the Americans with Disabilities Act after evidence that mentally disabled students were being segregated into contracted work for little or no pay.

In a 17-page letter produced by the Justice Department on June 7 and reported on by local WPRI News, officials detail the illegality of the so-called workshops.

“Birch obtains contracts with private businesses to perform work, such as bagging, labeling, collating, and assembling jewelry,” the letter stated. “One former student stated that she was required to spend a much greater portion of her school day in the workshop, including full days, when the workshop had important production deadlines.”

WPRI has reported that students were paid “subminimum or no wages” for their labor, according to the Justice Department report. The DOJ’s investigation revealed that students who were at least paid only made between 50 cents and $2 per hour, and sometimes worked weekends.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has stated that he was not aware of the program until a federal investigation was launched in January. The Mayor says the School has since terminated the program.

"I think there were very low expectations at that school ... we weren't preparing them to be successful as young adults," Taveras told WPRI. "I think we all let these kids down."

According to the DOJ’s investigation the program kept limited records, and the hours worked by each student did not appear to be tracked at all.

Even more troubling is that once students graduated from the program, with ages ranging from 14 to 21, they were given the option to continue working at another “sheltered workshop” through a Training Through Placement program in North Providence, described as a state-monitored program for disabled adults.


According to that program’s website, contracted work with the TTP program might involve "light assembling, sorting, various piecework tasks" and other services.

The Justice Department found that the Harold H. Birch Vocational School was functioning as a “feeder” to the continuing program, despite some students’ requests to work “in more integrated settings.”

"TTP is a segregated setting with many of the hallmarks of other segregated settings," the DOJ letter states, where "individuals are required to follow fixed, highly regimented schedules and routines; individuals with disabilities do not have private or personal space and are separated from spaces for managers and staff without disabilities; individuals exercise very limited choice over the activities that they engage in throughout the day."

Meanwhile, the fallout from the investigation into the forced labor has been swift. According to Mayor Taveras, the city immediately placed the principal of the school, Larry Roberti, on leave. A lawyer for the city stated that Roberti resigned on Tuesday.

On the whole, the Justice Department’s investigation paints a dire picture of future prospects for disabled students at Harold Birch.

"Other than the in-school sheltered workshop, the nearest experience that some Birch students are offered to a transition work placement is assisting the Mt. Pleasant High School cafeteria staff with emptying the school's trash," the report cites.

Taveras has said the city as well as the state of Rhode Island will enter into a settlement agreement with the federal government. He said it is unclear whether the Justice Department will make the city of Providence pay money for the violations, and it remains unclear whether the students forced to work will be given back pay either at the federal minimum wage or otherwise.

The Justice Department’s report also found that the local school board was warned about potential problems at Birch in a 2011 report.

"Unfortunately the City has continued to advance these practices at Birch despite a stark warning from the Council of the Great City Schools that such a practice was concerning," the report states.