North Carolina civil rights groups are urging the U.S. Justice Department to launch a federal investigation into two North Carolina school districts that allegedly discriminated against immigrant youth.
The complaint says that Buncombe and Union county schools unlawfully complicated and denied enrollment to two 17-year-olds, which coalition attorneys say represents a much larger problem in the state.
“It’s not just these two students. They are just the tip of the iceberg. Unaccompanied youth are being turned away from schools all across North Carolina,” said Caren Short, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Short says the complaint looks specifically at “unaccompanied children” – immigrant children who arrive in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian and are placed in the care of a sponsor. The complaint claims that they are often denied enrollment on the basis of their limited English proficiency, age and national origin.
A 17-year-old girl from Honduras was denied enrollment twice at Buncombe County Schools because school officials said she was too old for school, according to the complaint.
A spokesperson from the Department of Public Instruction would not comment on the details of the complaint, but says that all students under the age of 21 are entitled to a public education in the school district they live.
Public schools in North Carolina require that all students show proof of date of birth and a certification of immunization, though provisions exist for students with particular circumstances.
Jason Rhodes, a spokesperson from Buncombe County Schools says that no organization that filed the complaint reached out to the district in an attempt to resolve the matter.
“Buncombe County Schools cannot comment on any student or potential student’s individual situation; however, we do believe that some of the facts outlined in the complaint are inaccurate,” he says.
Mark Bowers, an attorney with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, says his organization received 60 complaints of enrollment from immigrants and their sponsors in the last year. He says nearly all of them came from extreme poverty and traumatic pasts.
“An education and the accompanying support that it offers is one of the surest roads out of these cycles of poverty, violence and vulnerability,” he says. “ This is an education promise to all children - one the U.S. Supreme Court has held that it cannot deny these children simply because of their national origin or immigration status.”