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Federal civil rights complaint filed against two North Carolina school districts on behalf of immigrant children denied enrollment

The SPLC and other civil rights groups are asking the Justice Department to investigate school districts where immigrant children were turned away because of their limited English proficiency, age or national origin.

“C.V.” had hoped to enroll in high school in Buncombe County, N.C. – part of her plan to get a high school diploma and attend cosmetology school.

But school officials twice denied the 17-year-old Honduran immigrant’s application. They told her she was too old, even though North Carolina law says all students under 21 are entitled to a public education in the school district in which they live.

Today, the SPLC and other civil rights groups filed a civil rights complaint urging the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a federal investigation into the school district and another North Carolina district, which also discriminated against an immigrant youth by denying, delaying or discouraging enrollment.

The incidents appear to be symptomatic of a larger problem in school districts across the state, the groups note in a letter accompanying the complaint.

“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, SPLC staff attorney.

The complaint urges the Justice Department to require the districts to adopt a nondiscrimination policy and to provide training to ensure that the law is followed.

The complaint describes how “unaccompanied” immigrant children – who arrive in the United States without a parent or legal guardian and are placed in the care of a sponsor, such as a family member – were turned away from the schoolhouse door because of their limited English proficiency, age or national origin. Sponsors of unaccompanied children, such as C.V.’s cousin, are required to ensure the child is enrolled in school.

“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 letter says.

The complaint also describes discrimination faced by “F.C.,” a native of Guatemala who arrived in the United States without his parents but now lives with them in Marshville, N.C. His mother is recognized as his sponsor.

“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.”

When F.C.’s mother attempted to enroll him in Forest Hills High School in Marshville last year, she was told her 17-year-old son was too old for school. F.C. was referred to a GED program at a local community college.

At the college, F.C.’s mother was told her son was too young for the GED program and to try to enroll him in high school again. At the high school, she was told that F.C. – a native Spanish speaker who understands little or no English – would not be enrolled until after he took an ESL exam.

F.C. was unable to complete the exam because it was in English. The person administering the exam helped F.C. submit an enrollment application that finally allowed him to attend Forest Hills High School in the Union County School District this past August.

The discrimination encountered by these children is a violation of 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, according to the complaint. The complaint also notes that more than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Plyler v. Doe that it is unconstitutional to deny a child present in the United States a public education, regardless of their federal immigration status.

Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, North Carolina Justice Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice joined the SPLC in filing the complaint.