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Advocates: Hispanic children turned away from Hempstead schools for weeks

Parents of undocumented children band together during a

Parents of undocumented children band together during a rally on Tuesday, Oct 14, 2014 outside Hempstead Middle school to fight for their children's right to get an education. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

More than 30 Hispanic children, some of them recent immigrants from Central America who entered the country illegally, have been turned away from Hempstead schools for weeks and denied their right to an education, civil rights advocates charged Tuesday.

Several teenagers and their relatives, along with the activists, were ordered off school grounds by security guards after they gathered outside Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School to call for a remedy to the situation.

"We are here because the civil rights of at least 34 children . . . have been violated," said Diane Goins, Long Island president of New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit. "Every child -- no matter what the color of their skin or where they come from -- deserves a good education, and these kids are not getting that education."

A lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union said the district, which began holding classes Sept. 3, is depriving children of basic rights by keeping them from the classroom.

"The New York State Constitution is clear and unambiguous with respect to a child's right to a free education," said Jason Starr, director of the NYCLU's Nassau chapter.

A state Education Department spokesman, while not commenting on Hempstead, pointed to a Sept. 10 agency memorandum on unaccompanied minors that says public schools are required to admit all residents between the ages of 5 and 21.

More than 2,500 school-age immigrants who entered the country illegally through the Mexican border have been placed with relatives and sponsors on the Island since January. Nassau and Suffolk are the top counties in the tristate area for the number of resettled children ages 17 and younger, according to the most recent federal figures.

School district spokesman Nathan Jackson said Tuesday afternoon that the 34 students of whom advocates had spoken were going to school "for attendance only" -- a reference to the taking of attendance each day -- because the district is overwhelmed by students. He later recanted, saying the district had not confirmed advocates' claims.

"We are investigating to see whether those allegations are true, and if they are we will fix it immediately," said Jackson, adding he was "not aware" of how many students were not included in classes.

School board president Lamont Johnson plans to meet this week with some advocates and parents, Jackson said. Activists also were seeking to meet with Superintendent Susan Johnson.

Several teens and their relatives said the students have been sent home after being told there is not enough room or teachers for them. Advocates said students have not been given class schedules.

Lilian Celis, 32, wears an electronic ankle bracelet to be tracked by immigration agents. Her two sons, Jonás, 15, and Javier, 16, haven't had a day of school since arriving from El Salvador in August. Both said they want to go to school to learn English.

"I am worried," she said in Spanish, "because their learning has stopped."

Administrators in Long Island districts with large immigrant populations have said the enrollment increases pose challenges beyond numbers: The newly arrived students speak little, if any, English and may have experienced emotional and physical trauma.

Increased enrollment has been a topic at recent Hempstead school board meetings, and the board was considering renting other buildings and hiring more staff. At a Sept. 8 board meeting, district officials said enrollment had increased from 7,088 at the end of the 2013-14 school year to nearly 8,200.

The district, however, has not supplied the number of students who were recent arrivals as unaccompanied minors in response to questions from Newsday.

Advocates on Tuesday called on the district to take corrective action and to explain what criteria it is using for turning children away.

Marta Equite, another parent, said each day that her daughter, Leslie Lemus, 16, is not in school represents a loss.

"This is all very strange to me," Equite said in Spanish, "because immigrants have always come here and gone to school . . . I can't understand why they are doing this."

Lemus has packed her book bag and gone to the high school every week since school opened in September, only to be sent home. "I feel kind of disillusioned," Lemus said in Spanish. "You go to school excited, and it doesn't feel good when they turn you away."

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