Since we consider schools to be one of the safest places outside our homes to send our children, our worlds seem to shake violently when we hear of an outside force barging in to harm children, such as what occurred in Newtown. We react with equal horror when those who we ask to take care of and nurture our children or most vulnerable are discovered taking advantage of the students. A recent report found that a Providence, Rhode Island school, with specific programming for the mentally disabled, forced students into manual labor, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. On top of that, when students graduated, some were coerced into transferring into a similar work program without any option of integrated employment.
Harold A. Birch Vocational School was found to have operated a workshop where students assembled, labeled, bagged, and collated jewelry. In a letter composed by the Justice Department, details include a statement from a former student who said 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 who were placed in the workshop were paid “sub-minimum or no wages” for their labor.
Upon graduation, students were given two options for employment, one of which included a similar program to the school’s workshop that entailed “light assembling.” The program would segregate the graduates from other workers and pay them “extremely low” wages. The school work program was found to have forced adult students into fixed schedules and routines, with no chance of opting out.
The school's principal, Larry Roberti, resigned Monday when the allegations came to light. Mayor of Providence Angel Taveras was first made aware of these serious allegations when the Department of Justice started its investigations in January. In response to the DOJ investigation, the Providence school board scheduled a meeting in April to consider firing Roberti, but he was ultimately not fired when city and school officials stood by his side and defended him.
City Councilman Nicholas Narducci made remarks at the April 22 school board meeting, stating, “These children are Larry’s family and you won’t find another person like him.” Since the school board voted not to fire Roberti, he has still received an $84,000 annual pension.