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SPLC: Florida county should enroll immigrant students barred from high school as lawsuit continues

Immigrant children who have been illegally barred from enrolling in high school in Collier County, Florida, should be allowed to begin classes during the upcoming school year while a federal lawsuit filed on their behalf makes its way through court, according to a motion filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center today.

The SPLC’s motion for a preliminary injunction describes how the children will continue to be denied an education as they await the outcome of an SPLC lawsuit filed in 2016. Rather than enroll the children, school officials 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 and an obstacle to the children’s ability to reach their full potential.

“School districts in Florida and around the country have a legal responsibility to provide children with a public school education,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC senior staff attorney. “We cannot risk depriving these children of an education – and the life-changing opportunities it provides – as they wait for justice.”

The motion demands that Collier County Public Schools take several actions as they enroll the students, including providing services to compensate them for missed educational opportunities. The district also must stop excluding recently arrived, foreign-born English language learners ages 15 and older from public school, according to the motion.

“I have missed over a year of school,” said N.A., a plaintiff in the case. “This has delayed my life, my career and my future. I am working so hard, and I just need access to a real school to give me the chance to achieve my dreams.”

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. When families attempted to enroll their children at Collier County high schools, administrators said they were only eligible to attend adult school English classes that provided no instruction in basic subjects, according to the SPLC lawsuit. The students were completely segregated from their English-speaking peers.

Exclusion of English learner students from public school violates federal law, which requires that school districts provide them with equal access to educational opportunities. The policy also violates Florida law, which bans discrimination against English learners.

The Florida Constitution requires the district to provide a “high quality education” to all students. The district has taken no steps to evaluate, assess, or create a plan for these students’ education, as required under state and federal law. The school board is violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Florida Educational Equity Act and the 14th Amendment, the lawsuit alleges.