Schools named in DOJ discrimination complaint

Feb. 24, 2014 @ 10:38 AM

A Union County student is one of two students identified in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The complaint was sent last week by a civil rights coalition, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the North Carolina Justice Center, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and others. 

It represents two complainants, F.C. versus Union County Public Schools and C.V. versus Buncombe County Schools. The two students appear on behalf of themselves and “all other similarly situated.” 

According to a cover letter submitted with the complaint to provide additional context, there is a broader problem of discrimination in North Carolina public schools against unaccompanied children. Unaccompanied children are children who have to come to the United States from another country without a parent or legal guardian to care for them and without lawful immigration status. 

“These children are being turned away at the schoolhouse door because of their limited English proficiency, their age, and their national origin,” the cover letter read. 

The letter states that the practice violates federal provisions and the court case Plyler v. Doe. 

While it is something the groups have seen statewide, only two students were willing to come forward to make formal complaints,  Caren Short, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. 

“What we’ve done is attached a letter to go along with the complaint to (the Department of Justice) that explains the extent of the problem,” she said. She said the purpose is to explain that it is not just the two counties named, but those are the districts where students were willing to come forward who had difficulties trying to enroll. 

“The reason we are so interested in this issue is not only because we want these specific two children named in the complaint to receive the education they are entitled to, but also so we can call attention to this larger problem that is happening,” Short said. 

The complaint states that an 18-year-old student referred to as F.C. had trouble when attempting to enroll at Forest Hills High School. 

F.C. was born in Guatemala and came to the United States in April of 2013, according to the complaint. He lives with his parents in Marshville and his mother, S.C., also acts as his sponsor. 

While in Guatemala, F.C. attended school. 

“F.C. came to the United States to reunite with his parents and further his education so he could have a successful life,” the complaint reads. “F.C. sought to escape a country full of crime, poverty and gangs.” 

According to the statement, the child was apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in May in Arizona. He was transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and was placed in an unaccompanied minor detention center in Michigan, where he took classes in numerous subjects including math, science, Spanish, dance and music. He was released to the custody of his mother in May of 2013, and she is his sponsor. 

Sponsors are responsible for meting the basic needs of unaccompanied minors, including food, housing, healthcare and school. 

His mother, S.C., could not recall the exact date that she first tried to enroll F.C., it was likely June 3. 

The complaint states that F.C. was 17 years old when he initially tried to enroll. At Forest Hills High School a school secretary informed S.C. in Spanish that he was too old to enroll in school and referred him to South Piedmont Community College’s adult education program. When she took her son to SPCC, she was told he was too young to enroll in the program and to return to the high school. 

According to the statement, the school secretary did not not say why 17 was too old to enroll in school and did not request records from previous schools or other documents. 

The mother returned to Forest Hills, saying she had a right to enroll F.C. in school. The same secretary, according to the complaint, gave the mother registration forms and the phone number to the English as a Second Language office and said F.C. would not be enrolled until after he took the ESL examination., which was scheduled for July, 30, 2013. 

She was also not informed about any summer classes or programs offered, according to the complaint. 

“On that date, F.C. was administered the examination, but since he knows no English and the examination was entirely in English, he could not complete any of the examination,” the complaint reads. “The person administering the test, who spoke to F.C. in Spanish, told F.C. he did not have to complete the examination after all. With the help of the ESL examination administrator, F.C. filled out and submitted an enrollment application.” 

According to the complaint, the student began taking classes at Forest Hills in August of 2013. 

“F.C. feels upset that it was so difficult and took to long to enroll in school,” the complaint reads. “When F.C. came to the United States, he dreamed of attending school and continuing his studies; he was disappointed that it was so difficult for him to be accepted at his school. F.C. is grateful for his supportive parents and hopes to study hard and graduate from high school. He also hopes to go to college. S.C. wants F.C. to work hard so he does not have to struggle as much as she has struggled. Despite the significant delay, F.C. has been doing his best to do well in school since he started in August.” 

Union County Public Schools released a statement in response to the complaint. 

“A complaint was filed against Union County Public Schools with the Department of Justice. Though the school system has received a copy of the complaint, the Department of Justice has not contacted Union County Public Schools to date. None of the agencies filing the complaint contacted the school system prior to filing this complaint,” the statement reads. “The school system cannot comment on any individual student issues.”

According to the statement, the system believes there are inaccuracies in the complaint.

“The school system does believe that many of the allegations in the complaint are inaccurate. In compliance with federal law, Union County Public Schools administers all educational programs, employment activities and admissions without discrimination against any person on the basis of gender, race, color, religion, national origin, age, or disability,” the statement reads. 

According to North Carolina law, all students under the age of 21 living in a school district who have not been removed from school for cause or who have not already obtained a high school diploma, are entitled to attend their assigned public school. 

The complaint claims that both districts violated state and federal law when they initially denied admission due to the age of the unaccompanied children (the student in Buncombe County was also 17 at the time). The complaint also claims that UCPS violated state and federal law when they conditioned F.C.’s enrollment on completing an ESL exam, as the protections of Title VI, a federal statute, have been interpreted to extend to students with limited English proficiency. 

Title VI is a piece in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that bans discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal funding.

The complaint requests that the Department of Justice accept jurisdiction over, consolidate and fully investigate the above claims and “take all necessary action to ensure that Complainants are promptly enrolled in school in their district and receive services necessary to remedy lost educational services.”

The complaint also asks that the Department of Justice require the districts to adopt, announce, promote and enforce a policy of nondiscrimination against students “no matter their national origin, immigration status, age in relation to academic ability or English speaking ability.”

The claim also asks that districts be required to provide training to staff who are likely to enroll students on the legal rights students to enroll in school, regardless of their national origin, immigration status, age in relation to academic ability or English-speaking ability.

Finally, the claim requests that the Department of Justice take any other steps it deems necessary in response to the complaint. 

A copy of the complaint was also sent to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and the state school board, requesting they take action on a statewide basis.

“My ideal ideal resolution of this would be two things, one would be that the letter that we sent to (NC DPI) initiates a response from them that prompts them to work with us, with the organizations that brought these issues to their attention, to craft a statewide remedy to prevent this from happening,” Short said. 

She said the remedy would include things like, a policy explaining the law that relates to this issue and training for staff who are going to enroll and any other necessary assistance needed to make sure this does not happen again. 

“We don’t believe that there’s anyone who is being intentionally mean,” Short said. “But we think that folks are either not aware of the law as it is or are confused about what they can or can’t do and unfortunately has resulted in some discrimination.” 

She said she also hopes the Department of Justice understands that this is not isolated to two school districts and that it is happening all over the state, so they work to find a statewide solution. 

“So that North Carolina can then become an example to the rest of the country,” Short said. “We don’t believe this is isolated to North Carolina.” 

According to the complaint, unaccompanied children typically leave their home countries to join family already in the United States, usually to escape violence, abuse, persecution or exploitation in their home country, to seek employment or educational opportunities in the United States or to support themselves or their families. Some children were brought in by human trafficking rings, according tot he complaint. 

Recently, the number of unaccompanied children serviced by the Office of Refugee Resettlement was around 7,000 to 8,000 a year. In 2013, the organization served 24,668 children and estimates more than 60,000 unaccompanied children will enter the United States in the coming year. 

The complaint also states that more female children are traveling to the United States due to increasing gender-based violence in Central America and that children are entering at younger ages. 

In 2013, the children served by the Office of Refugee Resettlement were 37 percent Guatemalan, 26 percent were from El Salvador and 30 percent were from Honduras. 

“Unaccompanied children are an especially vulnerable population due to their youth, their separation from parents and relatives, and the hazardous journey they endure to reach the United States,” the complaint reads. “They are at risk for human trafficking, exploitation and abuse.”