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Florida county denies education to immigrant kids, sparks SPLC lawsuit

Officials with Collier County Public Schools in Florida have effectively barred immigrant children with limited English skills from enrolling in high school and pushed them into an adult English program that offers no opportunity to earn credit toward a high school diploma – a violation of state and federal laws, according to a lawsuit filed by the SPLC today.

When families attempted to enroll their children at Immokalee High School, administrators said they were only eligible to attend Immokalee Technical Center (ITech) for an adult English language class with no instruction in basic subjects, according to the federal lawsuit. At ITech, these students cannot participate in any of the high school’s academic enrichment or extracurricular activities. They are completely segregated from their English-speaking peers.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

“The Collier County school district is shirking its responsibility to educate these students,” said Tania Galloni, SPLC managing attorney. “Let’s be clear: An adult English language class is no substitute for a high school education. Collier County has a responsibility under state and federal law to provide these children with a high school education.”

The three students named in the lawsuit, which is seeking class action status, recently came to the United States from other countries.

The lawsuit seeks to enroll the plaintiffs in Immokalee High School and provide them with instruction to make up for the education they have missed. It also seeks a change in district policy to end ongoing violations of anti-discrimination laws.

Following a rise in the number of unaccompanied teens coming to the United States in 2013, the Collier County School Board adopted a policy that lowers the maximum age at which a student may enroll if the student is not on track to graduate within two years. Since then, school employees have denied enrollment to recently arrived English language learners who are 16 or older, claiming these students are behind academically.

State law, however, requires that schools take active steps to encourage students who are 16 or older to remain in high school. The Florida Constitution also requires the district to provide a “quality education” to all students. The district has taken no steps to evaluate, assess and create a plan for these students’ education, as required under state and federal law.

“At ITech I am away from other kids my age,” said Y.M., one of the student plaintiffs. “I feel isolated and frustrated. I want to take classes in addition to English and interact with my peers. How will I be able to succeed as an adult if I cannot study basic subjects?”

By denying enrollment to these students, the district violates the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Florida Educational Equity Act and the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has repeatedly issued guidance to school districts reminding them of their obligation to provide equal access to educational opportunity for all children.