The complaint filed Feb. 13 cites the cases of two immigrant youths who were denied enrollment into public high schools in North Carolina. It was a joint effort by the Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, the North Carolina Justice Center, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Although the complaint called into question two specific school districts, it noted that discrimination in education system is an issue across the state.
“Many districts across the state have denied, delayed or discouraged enrollment based on immigration status,” said Caren Short, staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The children that were noted in the complaint were brave enough to come forward, but this kind of discrimination is also happening to children in other districts.”
According to the complaint, a 17-year-old immigrant from Honduras with initials C.V. was denied enrollment at Buncombe County Schools because she was too old. The complaint states that the action of the school board was against North Carolina law, which states that all students under the age of 21 are entitled to attend public schools in the school district in which they live.
The complaint also referenced a 17-year-old immigrant from Guatemala with initials F.C. who experienced difficulty enrolling in Forest Hills High School in the Union County Public School district. The student was first told that he was too old to enroll, and when attempting to enroll for the second time, he was asked to take an English proficiency test. Being a native Spanish speaker who did not speak English, he was unable to take the exam.
Although he eventually enrolled into the school because the person who administered the exam helped him submit an enrollment application, F.C. decided to bring the case to SPLC.
“I only wanted to attend high school, study hard and make a better life for myself,” F.C. said through an intrepreter in the press release provided by the agencies that filed the complaint. “Every time my mother tried to enroll me in school, we encountered excuses and obstacles. It should not be so difficult to attend high school.”
The Union County Public School district school Board of Education denied the allegation in the complaint.
“In compliance with federal law, [UCPS] 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,” reads a statement provided by Chief Communications Officer Rob Jackson.
The statement noted that as of Feb. 28, the school board has not been contacted by either the Department of Justice or the agencies that filed the complaint.
In addition to the Department of Justice—from whom they have not yet received a response—the agencies have also contacted the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to address the discrimination issue, said Chris Heaney, an attorney from the Southern Coalition of Social Justice.
“[The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction] is watching how this complaint is investigated by the Office of Civil Rights, especially regarding any findings and corrective action that may be provided by the office after investigation,” NCDPI spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter wrote in an email Monday. “[However], NCDPI does not enroll students generally except in the three residential schools for blind and deaf students.”
Jeter noted that enrollment is handled by local school boards and school districts, and students are required by law to present proof of their age, immunization records and address at the time of enrollment.
“Schools need to change how they interact with students," Heaney said. "Schools need to make sure students are not being asked to take an English proficiency test in order to be enrolled or to provide more documentation than required under the law.”
One important step to eliminating discrimination is "educating the educators" about the law, Short said.
“A lot of people don’t know that every child has the right to public education,” Short said. "They might think that immigration status matters, but it really doesn’t."
According to the complaint, the discrimination encountered by the students violates Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bar discrimination on the basis of national origin in federally funded public schools. Moreover, the complaint stated that it is unconstitutional to deny a child present in the United States a public education, regardless of their federal immigration status.
It is the school boards’ responsibility to ensure that students are properly registered, Heaney said.
“The federal Constitution, federal law and North Carolina law have collectively made the promise that students in North Carolina have the opportunity to attend public schools regardless of where they were born,” he said. “The school boards need to keep that promise.”