Civil rights groups want the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether North Carolina school districts are refusing to enroll some immigrant children despite being required to take all comers.
The groups, which include Legal Services of Southern Piedmont in Charlotte and the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), announced on Tuesday that they filed a complaint last week with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division against school districts in Buncombe and Union counties. The complaint says the school districts told two 17-year-old immigrant children with limited English skills they were too old for high school.
The groups claim immigrant children are being turned away from other North Carolina classrooms as well. They want the Justice Department to require districts to adopt a nondiscrimination policy and to provide training to ensure this doesn't happen again.
"These children should not have to face excuse after excuse from school officials who simply do not want them to ever set foot in a North Carolina classroom,” said Caren Short, an SPLC staff attorney, in a press release.
Buncombe school officials said they believe some parts of the complaint are inaccurate. Buncombe County Schools spokesman Jason Rhodes said the district had not been contacted by the Justice Department or any other organizations but cannot comment any further. A Union County spokesman did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment.
Mark Bowers, an immigration attorney with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, told the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times that his firm has seen around 60 cases this year of students having trouble enrolling in public schools.
“We believe this is a widespread problem that can be addressed by policy changes and training, to let school employees know what children’s rights are and what schools are required to do by the law,” Bowers said.
It is unconstitutional to refuse to let children register for school based on their age, immigration status, place of origin or inability to speak English, and the groups believe that this is a situation that occurs in various school districts in North Carolina, said SPLC staff attorney Caren Short. Under North Carolina law, all students under age 21 have the right to attend public school at the place where they reside.
The main concern involves "unaccompanied" immigrant children who arrive in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian and are placed in the care of a sponsor, such as a family members. The complaint mentions the case of C.V., age 17, a Honduran girl who lives with her cousin in Buncombe County and who was allegedly denied the right to register for high school on the grounds that she was too old.
“Sponsors consistently report difficulty enrolling their unaccompanied children in public school; however, most of these children are unwilling or unable to come forward and complain about the denial to the federal government,” the SPLC complaint letter says.
In addition, the complaint discusses the case of F.C., a Guatemalan boy living in Union County, who was also denied admission.
"I only wanted to attend high school, study hard and make a better life for myself," F.C. said through an interpreter. "Every time my mother tried to enroll me in school, she encountered excuses and obstacles. It should not be so difficult to attend high school."
The Associated Press and EFE contributed to this report.