Union County schools are one of two North Carolina school districts being accused of discriminating against young immigrants, under a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.
A Civil Rights coalition including the Southern Poverty Law Center said Tuesday that it filed the complaint last week, seeking a federal investigation on behalf of two 17-year-old students, one in Buncombe County and the other in Union County.
Complaints were also filed with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and State Board of Education.
Union County officials declined to comment on the complaint at this time.
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The districts are accused of delaying or discouraging immigrant youths from registering based on their limited English proficiency, age or national origin. The complaint describes both teens as “unaccompanied children” – immigrant children placed in the care of a sponsor or family member.
In the Union County case, a Latino student reportedly tried to register at Forest Hills High School last year but was told he was too old. Instead, he was told to attend a community college to get his GED. However, the community college advised him to go back to the high school and seek admission, an attorney said.
The student was later admitted to the district but only after being required to take an English proficiency test that he could not read because it was all in English, the attorney said.
Immigrant advocates want the districts to adopt a nondiscrimination policy and to provide training to ensure staff members follow the law.
In addition to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the coalition includes Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, the N.C. Justice Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
North Carolina has had one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the country, including a 273 percent increase from 1990 to 2000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Currently, its estimated 7.7 percent of the state’s population is foreign born, compared to 1.7 percent in 1990.
Coalition attorneys state in the complaint that they believe the cases of the two students represent a much larger problem in the state. “Sponsors consistently report difficulty enrolling their unaccompanied children in public school,” says the complaint letter. “However, most of these children are unwilling or unable to come forward and complain about the denial to the federal government.”
Neither of the students involved is being identified in the complaint.
The Buncombe student, a 17-year-old girl from Honduras, says she tried to register for school but was turned away for being too old. The girl made two attempts to register with the district, including an attempt to register for middle school, but was turned away both times, attorneys said.
The teen, who lives with a cousin, is currently attending a free English as a Second Language course at a community college, and hopes to eventually earn a high school degree, attorneys said.
“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 cq’d Short, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The letters (to state officials) are calling for them to take statewide action to make sure not one more student is turned away.”
Under North Carolina law, all students under the age of 21 are entitled to a public education in the school district where they live.