A school that caters to disabled students in Providence, R.I., has been accused of making them work manual labor for little to no pay. Harold H. Birch Vocational School allegedly had children perform tasks such as bagging, labeling, collating and assembling jewelry and paid them 50 cents to $2 an hour, WPRI reports.
"I think there were very low expectations at that school ... we weren't preparing them to be successful as young adults," Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said. "I think we all let these kids down."
The Birch school operates inside Mount Pleasant High School. Out of the school’s 77 students, 89 percent currently receive special education services, according to data from the Rhode Island Department of Education.
Taveras said he didn’t know about the alleged sheltered workshop until federal authorities launched an investigation in January. Taveras said the Birch school has ended the program.
On June 7 the Justice Department released a 17-page letter with its findings on the alleged sweatshop. According to the report, the state and city violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing a sheltered workshop to operate at the Birch school and a separate program in North Providence.
"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," the report stated.
The investigation found that the Birch program acted as a feeder to a similar sweatshop environment once the disabled students graduated. The students, between the ages of 14 and 21, were given limited options after leaving the Birch school – one was to continue to work at a sheltered workshop in North Providence that involved "light assembling, sorting, various piecework tasks" and other services.
The report found that the students rarely interacted with staff from Mount Pleasant High School or with other students.
"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 investigation also found that the school board was advised about the program at the Birch school in 2011, but continued it despite the “stark warning.”
The city tried to fire the school’s principal, Larry Roberti, in April. The mayoral appointed school board was scheduled to terminate Roberti, but 20 elected officials, parents and students backed Roberti during a hearing and vote, Fox Providence reports.
"Do not disturb the special life at Birch by taking Larry away from them. If you as a board sincerely care about these children, do not listen to anyone, not even the superintendent,” Providence City Councilman Nicholas Narducci said at the April 22 school board meeting.