Society

Rhode Island School for the Disabled Accused of Running Sweatshop

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht
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A school for the developmentally disabled in Providence, RI., allegedly forced students to work manual labor for little or no pay. A letter from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice called the operation at the Harold H. Birch Vocational School a “sheltered workshop,” according to a report from WPRI Target 12 News.

For years the school has been violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Birch obtains contracts with private businesses to perform work, such as bagging, labeling, collating and assembling jewelry," stated the DOJ letter obtained by WPRI. "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 DOJ said students received subminimum wages or no payment at all. Sometimes working weekends, the DOJ found kids were making 50 cents to $2 an hour.

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Mayor Angel Taveras said he had no idea the workshop existed until a federal investigation started in January.

"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."

Taveras said he has spoken with public safety officials about launching a criminal investigation.

"Were there people who benefited financially from this?" Taveras said. "Who were they — did they know what was going on? These kids deserve justice, they deserve better, and people should know what happened, and [that's] the only way we can ensure that it doesn't happen again."

Birch School has shut down the program, according to the mayor. He said the city is attempting to reach a settlement with the DOJ. School principal, Larry Roberti, was originally put on leave. He resigned Tuesday, according to an attorney for the city.

A 17-page letter from the DOJ dated June 7 outlined federal investigators’ findings and the appropriate ways to fix the problem.

"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 stated.

The investigation also found that Birch was feeding students ages 14 to 20 into the workshop through the Training Through Placement (TTP) program by offering them few prospects if they wanted to work after leaving Birch.

"TTP is a segregated setting with many of the hallmarks of other segregated settings,” the letter stated. “[Participants] 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."

The DOJ letter stated that the school board had been warned about potential hazards at Birch in 2011. Taveras and Providence School Superintendent Susan Lusi said they are not aware of the findings of that report.

Sources: Intelligencer, WPRI Target 12 News