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SPLC, Alabama school district reach resolution to admit Latino student

A Latino student is settling into his classes at a north Alabama high school after the SPLC demanded the school district admit the student after he was turned away in January, missing almost a semester of class.

A Latino teen who was turned away from an Alabama high school is now attending class after the SPLC demanded that the school district admit the youth and take steps to ensure fair enrollment practices for all students.

In a letter to Fort Payne City Schools Superintendent Jim Cunningham last week, the SPLC described how J.T., a 17-year-old Latino teen who came to the United States from Mexico when he was a year old, was denied enrollment at Fort Payne High School in January without any legal justification. He recently moved to Alabama from Colorado.

The school district took immediate action to address the concerns outlined in the letter, and enrolled J.T. the next day. On April 10, he attended his classes at the north Alabama high school.

“It feels great because I know I will be able to become what I want to be in life,” he said. “I feel normal too.”

J.T. met students on his first day, got to know his teachers and began to settle into his classes. He’s eager to make up for lost time. The youth, who plans to join the military, said he’s especially looking forward to his Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps classes.

“J.T. just wanted to go to school and now he gets to do exactly that,” said Caren Short, SPLC staff attorney. “We are thrilled for him and for other students who may face a similar situation.”

To ensure that no student faces discrimination based on national origin, the Fort Payne City School District has revised its enrollment form to make it clear that no student will be denied enrollment for failing to provide a Social Security number or discouraged from attempting to enroll if they don’t have a Social Security number.

Following the SPLC action, the district removed from its website a memo that says the state’s anti-immigrant law requires students to provide a birth certificate to complete enrollment. That provision was previously blocked by the courts.

News of J.T.’s plight spread quickly after the SPLC contacted the Fort Payne superintendent. An Alabama Department of Education spokesman told CNN, “We certainly tolerate no type of discrimination and need to look into it.”

For J.T.’s parents, it means they will see their son pursue his dreams.

“As parents, we have to watch out for the future of our children and their education,” his stepfather said through an interpreter. “Don’t let yourself be intimidated or let anyone step on your rights.”

J.T.’s mother was touched by the help her son has received.

“I’d like to thank the SPLC,” she said through an interpreter. “Everyone helped so much, and it made such a big difference. And it’s just such a happy day.”