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

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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.

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