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Department of Justice: SPLC discrimination lawsuit against Florida school district should move forward

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has asked a federal court to deny an attempt by Florida’s Collier County Public Schools to dismiss a SPLC lawsuit charging that the school district has illegally barred immigrant children with limited English skills from enrolling in high school.

The recommendation is outlined in a court brief, known as a “statement of interest,” filed by the DOJ earlier this week. It describes how the school district’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit “erroneously” argues that it abides by federal laws prohibiting such discrimination and “ignores Plaintiffs’ allegations” that a school enrollment policy is “intentionally discriminatory and is discriminatorily applied.”

The DOJ added that the district’s legal argument to dismiss the lawsuit “cites cases out of context” and “misconstrues governing legal standards.”

The statement of interest was offered to assist the court in evaluating the SPLC’s lawsuit.

“We welcome the Department of Justice’s input and hope it assists our clients’ efforts to attend school,” said Naomi Tsu, SPLC deputy legal director. “The school district is legally mandated to provide these children with an education, but insists on turning away immigrant children at the schoolhouse door.”

The SPLC filed the lawsuit in May on behalf of immigrant children with limited English skills denied enrollment in high school. The youths, who range in age from 15 to 17 years old, were pushed into an adult English program that offers no opportunity to earn credit toward a high school diploma – a violation of state and federal laws.

Following a rise in the number of unaccompanied teens coming to the United States, 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 as young as 15, claiming these students are behind academically.

State and federal law, however, requires that schools offer a meaningful education to all children, including English language learners. 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.

The DOJ’s filing cites a recent decision by a federal court in New York that denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against the Utica City School District, which was accused of diverting immigrant students into a basic English class and a high school equivalency program with no opportunity to earn a regular diploma. A settlement was reached in that case to prevent discrimination against immigrant students.

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