New York Compels 20 School Districts to Lower Barriers to Immigrants

Twenty New York school districts found to be blocking access for undocumented immigrant children will be forced to modify their enrollment policies to break down illegal barriers to education, the state attorney general’s office said on Wednesday.
A joint review by the State Education Department and the attorney general’s office found a broad pattern of intransigence on the part of districts that, despite repeated instructions from federal and state law enforcement agencies, continued to bar children based on their immigration status, said Kristen Clarke, the chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the attorney general’s office.
The resulting reforms, under agreements between the attorney general’s office and the 20 districts, would compel them to stop asking for documents such as Social Security cards that effectively exclude undocumented children from school.
The state compliance review followed an article in The New York Times in October, which found that several suburban districts had contravened federal guidance by requiring immigrant families to provide proof of district residency before their children were enrolled. Families were stymied by school bureaucracies, and children, who are required by law to attend school, could not.
The state, which initially focused on four counties near New York City, expanded its inquiry after immigration advocates reported that other districts were asking about children’s immigration status before allowing them to enroll. The challenges were especially acute in suburban areas where unaccompanied immigrant children have recently arrived. From October 2013 through the end of last year, New York received about 6,500 unaccompanied immigrant minors, the third highest in the country behind Texas and California.
In addition to changing their enrollment requirements, the districts agreed to develop new training for enrollment officials and to report any denials of admission until June 2018.
Many of the 20 districts implicated, which are spread over 14 counties, are outside large cities. They include the Amherst, Carthage, Cheektowaga, Cuba Rushford, Dryden, Gates Chili, Greenville, Hilton, Homer, Lyme, Manchester-Shortsville, Penfield, Pittsford, Spencerport, Sullivan West, Vestal and Williamson Central School Districts; and the Oneida, Port Jervis and Watertown City School Districts.
“What our work shows is that in every community there is the potential for students to encounter barriers,” Ms. Clarke said on Wednesday. She added, “We were very struck to find ones that had policies which, on their face, violated the law.”
The investigation found that schools were requiring illegal enrollment materials from families, including copies of Social Security cards and visa expiration dates, which illegal immigrants generally would not have. By asking for them, Ms. Clarke said, districts violate a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, which found that schools cannot deny access to public education on the basis of a student’s immigration status.
Ms. Clarke said she attributed the problem in part to a recent influx of unaccompanied immigrant children into districts that “were simply not prepared.” But the findings were also evidence of “tremendous under-enforcement” of the Supreme Court mandate, she said.
Some districts have continued to resist the state’s reform efforts, the authorities said. The acting commissioner of the Education Department, Elizabeth Berlin, sent an order to the Hempstead Union Free School District on Long Island on Wednesday that threatened to remove school officials if the district did not comply.
Among the department’s demands were to “immediately ensure that the district’s enrollment office is open, with doors unlocked, during its hours of operation.”
Hempstead schools have been under scrutiny since an advocacy group in October obtained a document showing that 33 students had been excluded from classes. The students, many of whom are newly arrived immigrants, were instructed to sign in for attendance a few mornings each week, and then return home because the school could not accommodate them.
Since then, the state has found evidence that between 57 and 59 students were prevented from enrolling, a spokesman for the Education Department said. Investigators have also alleged that the district failed to provide adequate instruction to non-English-speaking students, and discouraged students from enrolling by requiring residency documentation.
The district has ignored calls from the attorney general and the department to identify those students, spokesmen for the two offices said.
Hempstead school officials did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
The attorney general’s office said litigation was an option for districts that refused to comply.​