Providence Mayor “Outraged” by Justice Dept. Probe at Birch School

Jun 12, 2013

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras says he is “outraged and saddened” by the findings of a Federal Justice Department investigation, alleging civil rights violations in a program for disabled students.

In a written statement, Taveras says the program, which ran for two decades at the Birch Vocational School inside Mt. Pleasant High School, failed its most vulnerable students. The city is looking into pursuing criminal charges.

The Justice Department found that students at the Birch School were segregated from the rest of Mt. Pleasant High School despite federal mandates to provide as much integration as possible for students with developmental disabilities. They were taught to work in sweatshop-like conditions in what’s known as a sheltered workshop, where they performed duties such as bagging, labeling, collating and assembling jewelry, all for wages well below minimum wage.

The report claims the Birch vocational program essentially functioned as a “pipeline” for Training Through Placement, Inc., one of the largest employment programs in Rhode Island for people with disabilities. The company’s former director, John Capobianco, Sr., and his son John Capobianco, Jr. are facing charges of embezzlement and conspiracy. Their attorney, John Cicilline, did not return Rhode Island Public Radio’s request for comment. The company’s Interim Executive Director, Christine McMahon was also unavailable for comment. When called this morning, an office worker who described herself as “a temp” took a message for McMahon.

Providence school officials say they have removed the principal of the Birch School, Larry Roberti, and ended the program. The Birch school currently enrolls 85 students between the ages of 14 and 21, according to the U.S. Justice Department report.