AG to Review Districts’ Undocumented Student Enrollment Policies

Undocumented Children
Unaccompanied minor detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after crossing the US-Mexico border. (Photo credit: Eddie Perez)

The New York State Attorney General’s office and education officials are reviewing Long Island school districts’ enrollment policies regarding undocumented students and unaccompanied minors amid allegations that Hempstead School District initially turned away nearly three-dozen such children at the beginning of the school year.

Along with the Board of Regents and State Education Department, attorney general’s office investigators will examine whether students are being denied their constitutional right to an education, according to a press release announcing the joint compliance review. The three agencies will focus their efforts on Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland and Westchester counties. By far, Nassau (1,250) and Suffolk (1,358) have received the largest number of unaccompanied children since January, according to data released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“Schoolhouse doors must be open to every student in our increasingly diverse state regardless of their immigration status—there is simply no excuse for denying that basic right, which is protected by the Constitution,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

The review will include an examination of districts’ written enrollment and registration materials and a review of information released to the public, officials said. Additionally, Schneiderman’s office will meet with local advocates to discuss districts’ legal obligations and students’ rights.

Jason Starr, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Nassau County chapter, cheered the steps being taken by the state.

“This announcement signals that this is a very big issue here in New York State and on Long Island, [and that] the education department and attorney general’s office is taking the rights of all students, particularly immigrant students in this case, seriously,” Starr said.

Unaccompanied children have arrived to the US en masse from Mexico and Central America after fleeing from brutal gang violence in their home countries, activists have said.

Between Oct. 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014 more than 68,000 unaccompanied children entered the country from the US-Mexico border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.

Even though state education officials have been assisting school districts on the issue since as far back as August 2010, the recent influx of minors has reportedly caught some districts unprepared to handle the flow of students.

Citing the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which guaranteed undocumented children a free public education, Schneiderman said: “we must do everything we can to uphold the law and ensure equal access for all students. This review is a crucial step in that effort.”

The examination is largely in response to reports that the Hempstead School District was “ignoring the law and preventing 34 Hispanic children from receiving an education,” according to the press release. Nassau BOCES is expected to release a report to the State Board of Education on Thursday addressing Hempstead School’s policies.

An activist in Suffolk has also received similar complaints from parents, but did not want to publicly identify the school districts.

After learning of the reports, the state Education Department sent a letter to all school districts reminding them of their obligations under federal law to allow undocumented children into classrooms.

“We will not stand by while districts ignore the law and prevent these children from receiving an education,” John King Jr., the state Education Commissioner, said in a statement. “Department staff has already started this process, and we won’t stop until we’re sure every district is following the law and every child is in school.”

Newsday reported this week that Hempstead school officials have started to place undocumented children at a so-called “transition school” in the village. That’s after the school district reportedly didn’t have room for the students in their classrooms.

Starr said at least three-dozen students registered for classes but were initially turned away. After several days, some parents stopped bringing their kids to school and were under the impression they’d be contacted, but never were, he said.

“We understand that there might be unanticipated enrollment,” Starr said. “I think that the community advocates want to make sure that the districts who have been receiving a large number of new students have what they need to provide a high quality education.”

A public relations representative for the school district didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

The state Board of Regents is also calling on New York’s Congressional representatives to support federal funding for districts taking in unaccompanied minors.

In addition, officials said the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students has a hotline that provides people with assistance regarding shelters, social service providers and school-related issues. The number is 1-800-388-2014.