Union County is one of two North Carolina school districts accused of making it difficult for youth who are in the country illegally to enroll. The Southern Poverty Law Center along with other groups filed the complaint with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The complaint focuses on youth the U.S. government classifies as “unaccompanied children.” It highlights the cases of two teenagers, one in Union County and the other in Buncombe County in western North Carolina. They were both picked up by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. And they were both seventeen last year when they tried to enroll in school.
The complaint refers to the teenager in Union County as F.C. He was reunited with his parents in Union County after being detained by border protection. Shortly afterward in early June, his mother tried to enroll him at Forest Hills High School in Marshville. Caren Short with the Southern Poverty Law Center says the secretary there refused to do that.
“She didn’t ask for any documents, any previous school records. She just said he’s too old and referred mom to a community college where FC could get his GED,” says Short.
Twenty-one is actually the cut-off point, according to state law. Short says South Piedmont Community College told his mom he was too young and encouraged her to try enrolling him again at the school.
“The same secretary scheduled him for an English proficiency exam and informed FC and his mom that he wasn’t enrolled until he took the exam,” says Short.
He failed the exam, but was ultimately enrolled and started school in August.
According to the complaint, the teenager in Buncombe County was also told she was too old, but was never able to enroll.
Matt Ellinwood with the North Carolina Justice Center says in his experience working with these youth instances like these aren’t just relegated to these two districts.
“Unaccompanied minors seeking to register and enroll in North Carolina public schools across the entire state are subject to systematic delays that discourage these students to exercise their right to access public schools and often cause them to begin school months behind their peers,” says Ellinwood.
Delays rack up, he says, because these youth have a hard time coming up with documents that districts require to enroll like proof of birth or residency within the district.
The groups are asking the Department of Justice to investigate the two school districts and provide training to make sure school staff follow the law.
Buncombe school officials say they believe some parts of the complaint are inaccurate. A Union County Schools spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is waiting to hear what the Department of Justice finds in these cases before weighing in.
UPDATE: Union County Public Schools spokesman Rob Jackson says the district believes many of the allegations in the complaint are inaccurate. He says the groups never contacted the district before filing the complaint.