PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The high school principal at the center of a months-long federal investigation into the violation of disabled students' civil rights was on the cusp of being fired in April before an outpouring of support saved his job.
Larry Roberti, principal at the Harold H. Birch Vocational School, resigned Monday after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed he presided over a school that failed to prepare its students for adulthood, essentially guaranteeing "that they will experience indefinite confinement in segregated adult sheltered workshops and day programs" once they enter the workforce.
Federal investigators allege Providence and the state allowed Roberti's school to operate a "sheltered workshop" that segregated students in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Students were also paid paltry wages for labor that included "bagging labeling, collating and assembly jewelry," according to a letter from the DOJ.
"We have concluded that the sheltered workshop at Birch puts students with [intellectual and developmental disabilities] at serious risk of unnecessary placement in segregated adult day activity services programs," the letter states. Roberti has been the school's principal for 25 years.
The Birch School operates inside of Mount Pleasant High School and has catered almost exclusively to students with disabilities for 40 years. According to data published by the R.I. Department of Education, 89% of the school's 77 students currently receive special education services.
The Justice Department began interviewing officials at both Birch and the Training Through Placement program - which operates another sheltered workshop - in January and briefed the city's legal counsel on its findings April 9.
Less than two weeks later, Providence's mayoral-appointed school board was scheduled to consider terminating Roberti, but several of its eight members wavered after more than 20 elected officials, parents and students backed the embattled principal during a public hearing before the vote
"These children are Larry's family and you won't find another person like him," Providence City Councilman Nicholas Narducci said at the April 22 school board meeting, held in the auditorium of the Providence Career and Technical Academy.
"I was at the graduation and it was really special," Narducci said. "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."
Teachers, students and parents of children attending Birch described Roberti during the meeting as a "father figure" who always had the best interest of his students in mind.
"He is dedicated not only to the children but to the staff as well," Juliana Bolivar, a teacher's assistant at Mount Pleasant High School, said. "He goes over and beyond his duty for everyone in the school. I personally look up to him as though he is a god. He has a gift for working with special children. How could you think of taking him away?"
The testimony was successful. Out of the five school board members who attended the pivotal meeting, only two – Nicholas Hemond and Nina Pande – supported terminating Roberti. Three others members abstained from voting.
No one at the meeting disclosed that the federal investigation had already found some of Birch's students were spending at least 55 minutes – and in some cases much longer – a day working for between 50 cents and $2 an hour. Some students, the report said, spent at least a third of all classroom instruction time in the sheltered workshop.
The Justice Department report also found that Birch students were only awarded certificates of attendance rather than high school diplomas, a policy that exposed the students to the "significant and often lasting stigma attached to not receiving a diploma."
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said he didn't think some of Roberti's supporters were aware of the accusations levied against the school.
"I think that's what makes it even sadder," Taveras told Target 12. "The fact that many people perhaps didn't realize that their children were not getting all the opportunities that they should have been given. And I think that is part of why people were supportive. We can do a lot better and we have to do a lot better."
Roberti has earned a total of 38 years of pension credits with the state retirement system, including 25 years leading the Birch school, according to Joy Fox, a spokeswoman for General Treasurer Gina Raimondo.
Fox said Roberti will earn an estimated pension of $84,000 annually in retirement, but indicated the pension system had not yet received any of his paperwork as of Tuesday.