State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. Thursday ordered Nassau BOCES to immediately investigate the Hempstead school district's enrollment procedures, two days after community activists alleged the district has turned away at least 34 Hispanic students from school for weeks.
The mandate centers on children who are recent immigrants and in some cases entered the country illegally as unaccompanied minors. More than 2,500 such youths, who fled poverty and violence in Central America, have been released to relatives or sponsors on Long Island this year.
King's letter to James T. Langlois, interim superintendent of Nassau BOCES, directed him to report to the commissioner by Oct. 23 with the number of students involved, whether they were being provided instructional services, the specifics of the enrollment process for the students and any other relevant information.
The commissioner's action is highly unusual, an Education Department spokesman said.
The letter to Langlois noted that the department issued a memo in September to districts statewide, advising them of their "obligations relating to enrollment of unaccompanied minor children," and citing relevant federal and state laws.
Department officials, it said, "confirmed with Hempstead school officials that a number of Hispanic students were not enrolled in the district and provided educational services commencing in September, though the district indicates they are now arranging to provide instruction."
Austin Graff, an attorney for the school district, said officials there had not received King's letter, which was dated Oct. 16.
The district already is working with Nassau BOCES on enrollment procedures after representatives called to talk about ways it can "help the district in resolving the matter," he said. Graff said he did not know if that call was connected to King's letter.
Langlois could not be reached for comment.
Nathan Jackson, a spokesman for the school district, said officials there were unaware of the letter last night.
He said administrators plan to meet Friday with the families of the students and conclude the district's investigation into the enrollment issue.
Community advocates, who rallied the parents to protest on their children's behalf outside the district's middle school Tuesday, said they also will be present at that meeting.
Lucas Sánchez, director of the Nassau County office of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change, called the ordered BOCES investigation "a tremendous victory" and a needed step toward officials taking a closer look at how the Hempstead schools are run.
"I'm ecstatic," Sánchez said. "It is our hope that the investigation looks at who ultimately allowed this to happen, why they selected these specific kids, and that the persons that allowed this to happen be held accountable."
He said the students "have been robbed of their constitutional right to a public school education."
Parents whose children were sent home from school said they are glad government officials are taking their claims seriously.
"We were feeling rejected, because it was not clear at all that they were taking our children, and I thought they were just telling us lies," Marilé Sánchez said in Spanish.
Sánchez, 34, said her 14-year-old son, who came from El Salvador in July, has been stuck at home while his two younger siblings, who are United States citizens, go to school every day.
"This is very important to us," she added, "because studying will help him advance."
Elias Mestizo, head of the district's teachers union, said he was surprised by King's order, but the commissioner "has the right to do whatever he thinks is best."
Board member Ricky Cooke, elected in May, said Thursday he was unaware of King's letter and that he did not want to comment. Cooke said he needs more information on the district's handling of the students.
"I need to get some clarity on that," he said.