Collier County Schools accused of refusing high school education to immigrant children

Federal District Court – Middle District of Florida – Fort Myers Division
LESLY METHELUS, ROSALBA ORTIZ, ZOILA LORENZO, ANGE MARIE
JOSEPH, EMILE ANTOINE and LUCENIE HILAIRE DUROSIER, on
behalf of Y.M., a minor, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly
situated
                                                                  Plaintiffs,
v.
                                                                                                 Case No: 2:16 – cv – 379 FtM – 38MRM
THE SCHOOL BOARD OF COLLIER
COUNTY, FLORIDA and KAMELA
PATTON,
                                                                    Defendants,

Okay, I know that this does not related to special education, but those who care about our educational system should be concerned about this.  According to the complaint Collier County refused enrollment in high school to several newly arrived immigrants from Haiti and Guatemala, aged 16, 17, and 18 years old.  “School officials gave like reasons for denying  enrollment – age, lack of English proficiency, insufficient academic credits, and/or ineligible to attend high school.” …  “[N]one of Plaintiff Children were assessed for English language proficiency or academic achievement before being denied enrollment.”  The court noted that these children were simply turned away and they were not directed to other educational programs or opportunities.  The parents based their legal challenge on the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.  The defendant school district then moved for dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that plaintiff’s complaint did not state or alleged grounds for which there is a remedy at law.  The order being discussed here is the court’s order denying the defendant’s motion for dismissal.

The school district apparently based its exclusion of these students on the basis of a school board policy which excluded young people who had attained the age of 19 years or who could not if younger earn sufficient credits to graduate before the year of their 19th birthday.

In its analysis, the court noted that “[t]he Florida Constitution guarantees a free public school education to all children residing within its borders. 4 Fla. Const. art. IX, § 1(a). It states that “[t]he education ofchildren is a fundamental value of the people of the State. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children in the State.” Id.; see also Scavella v. Sch. Bd. of Dade Cty., 363 So. 2d 1095, 1098 (Fla. 1978) (“The clear implication is that all Florida residents have the right to attend this public school system for free.”).”  Although the defendant school district tried to argue that the right to education ended at 16 (when a child may withdraw from school), the court held that when a child does not “withdraw” from school then the child has a right to an education up to graduation or at least to the age of majority.
Furthermore, the court noted that “Florida also guarantees free public education to all students regardless of their national origin.  See Fla. Stat. § 1000.05(2)(c). No person may be “excluded from participating in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any public K – 20 education program” by a public school receiving federal or state financial assistance.  Florida Statutes § 1000.05(2)(a)  Additionally, Florida Statutes provided that “School officials must identify and assess suspected ELL students to determine whether, and to what extent, they require language support.  Id. §1003.56(1)(“Instruction in the English language shall be provided to limited English proficient students. Such instruction shall be designed to develop the student’s mastery of the four language skills, including listening, speaking, reading, and writing, as rapidly as possible.”). Each school board must implement procedures regardinglimited English

proficient students that include, among other things,
  • identifying limited English proficient students through assessment;
  • providing limited English proficient students ESOL instruction in English and ESOL instruction or home language instruction in the basic subject areas of reading, math, science, social studies, and computer literacy; and
  • providing equal access to other programs for eligible limited English proficient students based on need.
Fla. Stat. § 1003.56(3)
It appears that the district’s defense is based primarily upon what is known as the “Home rule” principal found in the Florida Constitution, which places the authority to create policies for the provision of education within the hands of local school districts.  That argument did not, however, find any favor with the Court.  The court held
“[i]n short, although school boards possess a variant of home rule powers that
provide them a broad grant of authority to act for educational purposes, that power is not limitless. The Florida Constitution and general laws like the FEEA, EEOA, and Title VI
limit it. See Fla. Sat. § 1001.32(2) (permitting school boards to “exercise any power except as expressly prohibited by the State Constitution or general law”); id. § 1001.32(1) (“[A]ctions of district school officials shall be consistent and in harmony with state laws Case 2:16-cv-00379-SPC-MRM Document 62 Filed 03/17/17 Page 11 of 29 Page ID 589

12 and with rules and minimum standards of the state board”).  Thus, home rule does not permit Defendants to promulgate policies inconsistent with federal and state law.
It is important to note that this decision is not a final ruling in the sense that it only relates to the school district’s motion to dismiss the complaint.  There must be a hearing/trial wherein the court will determine the pertinent facts of the case.  Still, after reading this decision, I would not want to be the school district going forward.  The court seems clear in its opinion that if the Plaintiffs (parents) are able to prove the essential facts of the case, the law very strongly supports their complaint.
This is a long opinion and the court goes on to discuss a number of other legal arguments on both sides of the issues.  It is worthwhile to read the entire decision.  I will place this decision of SELA’s website and will provide notice of when it is posted on Facebook and on this blog.
Even though this case does not relate specifically to special education, I feel that it is important that we have an understanding of the educational legal disputes arising around the state.  For those who are frustrated and even angry with school districts who will sometimes go to great lengths in order to avoid their responsibilities under the law, this case shows that these type of issues sometimes arise under regular education, as well.  If one thinks of the amount of money the school district must pay to legally defend its unconscionable behaviors, as well as the parent attorney fees that the school must reimburse when they lose this cause, imagine how much valuable education could have been provided to these innocent children.
Kudos to the Southern Poverty Legal Center for standing up for this kids!
Please comment or ask questions relative to this.
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