PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - A Providence school that caters to developmentally disabled students allegedly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act for years by making students work manual labor for little or no pay and acting as a "pipeline" to a similar program once they graduated, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.
Both Providence and the state allowed the Harold H. Birch Vocational School to operate a "sheltered workshop" that segregated kids with disabilities from other students and denied them the opportunity for integrated employment when they completed their schooling, according to a letter from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"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."
Students were paid "subminimum or no wages" for their labor, according to the Justice Department report. The investigation found that students who were paid made between 50 cents and $2 an hour and sometimes worked weekends.
"The workshop's records pertaining to student hours are extremely limited," the letter states. "It appears that no actual records were kept for each individual's time in the workshop."
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said he did not know that the sheltered workshop existed until the federal investigation was launched in January. He said the Birch School has since ended 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 Target 12. "I think we all let these kids down."
The findings, which Taveras called "outrageous," are detailed in a 17-page letter to the city dated June 7 which outlined the Justice Department's findings and measures to remedy the situation.
Taveras said the city immediately placed Larry Roberti - the longtime principal at the school - on leave. A lawyer for the city said Roberti resigned on Tuesday.
The mayor said he has been in talks with Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare about the Birch program and they may launch a criminal investigation.
"Were there people who benefited financially from this? Who were they - did they know what was going on?" Taveras asked. "These kids deserve justice, they deserve better and people should know what happened, and the only way we can ensure that it doesn't happen again."
The investigation found both the city and the state violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing a sheltered workshop to operate at the Birch school and a separate program out of North Providence.
"The City, in part, by operating an in-school sheltered workshop at Birch, has planned, structured, administered, and funded its transition service system in a manner that imposes a serious risk of unnecessary segregation upon Birch students," the letter states.
The investigation also found Birch students - ages 14 to 21 - were given few choices if they wanted to work after leaving Birch. One of two options was to continue in a sheltered workshop at the Training Through Placement program (TTP) in North Providence, a state-monitored program for disabled adults. The TTP website says it can offer companies "light assembling, sorting, various piecework tasks" and other services.
The Justice Department investigation found the Birch school acted as a "feeder to TTP, [despite] some students' specific requests to work and receive services 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."
Those working at TTP are paid "extremely low wages," according to the report.
The report to the city does not provide information about the investigation's findings into TTP, but referenced a similar letter sent to the state. That letter, obtained by Target 12 through a public-records request, is four pages long and lacks details about what happened inside TTP.
Deborah Vargas, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, declined to comment. "We are not at liberty to issue a response to your questions at this time due to ongoing discussions with the Department of Justice which have not been concluded," she wrote in an email.
Taveras said he asked to make sure all the details about the investigation were released in the letter, which is a public document.
"It's important that people know what happened and that we fully investigate," Taveras said. "The only way we can ensure that it doesn't happen again is by making sure that we fully investigate this and bring this to the light of day."
Taveras said the city as well as the state are going to enter into a settlement agreement with the federal government in a court filing later this week. He said it's unclear if the Justice Department is going to make Providence pay money for the violations.
"There will be a cost to fix things over there," Taveras said. "But you also have to think about what has been going on there for decades, and the fact of the matter is it shouldn't have happened."
Providence School Superintendent Susan Lusi said the school department will conduct a search to replace Roberti as principal at Birch, but for now the city's director of special education is overseeing the school.
Lusi said she wants the Birch program to continue because it offers "valuable" tools, such as a kitchen and a greenhouse, were students can thrive and learn.
"I wouldn't want to stop that," Lusi said. "But we do need to integrate them more into Mt. Pleasant [High School]."
The Justice Department report found that some students interacted on a limited basis with Mt. Pleasant staff.
"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 states.
The report also found that the 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, referencing a national nonprofit that works with urban school districts nationwide.
Both Taveras and Lusi said they were unaware of the findings related to Birch in the Great City Schools report.
Red flags were also raised in TTP's case. As Target 12 first reported, the head of the nonprofit organization and his son were charged with conspiracy in April after police say they stole money from the program.
John Capobianco Sr., 67, and John Capobianco Jr., 40, both of Johnston, turned themselves into North Providence Police and were charged with conspiracy. The son was also charged with embezzlement.
The Capobiancos have both pleaded not guilty and the case is still pending.
Copyright WPRI 12
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