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NYCLU survey: 12 Long Island school districts placing 'illegal barriers to immigrant youth'

New York State Education commissioner Dr. John King

New York State Education commissioner Dr. John King in a 2013 file photo. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A new survey of enrollment procedures found that many New York school districts -- including five in Nassau and seven in Suffolk -- are placing "illegal barriers to immigrant youth" that could keep them from attending school, the New York Civil Liberties Union said Thursday.

The group reviewed enrollment requirements at 139 school districts in which it had documented similar problems in 2010 and again found restrictive policies, from asking for birth certificates to requiring Social Security cards or inquiring about immigration and citizenship.

"The question is whether these policies would chill someone's willingness to engage with the districts," said Johanna Miller, the NYCLU's advocacy director.

Long Island districts found to have unnecessary registration requirements are East Meadow, Great Neck, Island Trees, Plainedge and Valley Stream 13 in Nassau County and Amagansett, Amityville, Bay Shore, Deer Park, Eastport-South Manor, Mattituck-Cutchogue and Three Village in Suffolk. All ask for birth certificates, and East Meadow and Valley Stream 13 also seek a Social Security number or card, survey results showed.

State education officials countered that they have worked diligently to address enrollment problems, and administrators from all but one of those districts responded quickly, objecting to the survey's method and findings. Immigrant students, they said, are not turned away, because districts accept alternative forms of identification. Great Neck did not comment.

"We enroll all of our kids and we enroll them before many of them have all the documentation," said Charles Murphy, the Island Trees schools superintendent.

Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Anne Smith said her district requires a birth certificate for all students, but none has been unable to provide it.

"We have never denied someone access," she said. "If the paperwork is from another country, we find someone to help us read it and we're usually good."

Adrienne Robb-Fund, Valley Stream 13's superintendent, echoed other administrators when she said in a written statement that the district "is well aware of the difficulties faced by immigrant children,particularly unaccompanied minors," and that it requests proof of age only to place students in the appropriate grades.

"Our district has never denied admission to such children based on an inability to produce a birth certificate or other formal proof of birth," Robb-Fund wrote.

The survey was partly triggered by allegations that dozens of students, mostly recent immigrants who came to the United States illegally as unaccompanied minors from Central America, were being turned away from Hempstead schools. Hempstead, which this month opened a grades 9-12 "transition school" for immigrants, was not surveyed because it was not in the original list that the NYCLU studied.

Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU's executive director, said the data show that "many districts across the state are discriminating against immigrant children and preventing them from enrolling in schools."

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. responded in a letter outlining "several actions" the department is taking to ensure the education of all children, including an ongoing review of enrollment policies in Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland and Westchester counties.

Dennis Tompkins, a state Education Department spokesman, said the NYCLU, aside from its reports, "has never identified a single student who has been denied enrollment based on immigration status," and asked that the organization share its data with the agency.

The advocacy group is asking the state to issue "a model, universal enrollment form" asking for minimum information to enroll a child and place him or her in the right grade.

Amol Sinha, the NYCLU's Suffolk director, said the paperwork barrier could be insurmountable for immigrants still finding their footing here.

"Asking for a birth certificate with the implication that students will be denied if they can't provide one is very problematic," Sinha said.

These Long Island public school districts were identified in a New York Civil Liberties Union survey as having restrictive enrollment policies that may negatively affect immigrant students:

In Nassau County

The East Meadow and Valley Stream 13 districts require a birth certificate and Social Security number or card, while the Great Neck, Island Trees and Plainedge districts require a birth certificate.

In Suffolk County

The Amagansett, Amityville, Bay Shore, Deer Park, Eastport-South Manor, Mattituck-Cutchogue and Three Village school districts require a birth certificate.

The NYCLU's review of enrollment procedures at 139 school districts statewide showed that 73 school districts required birth certificates; 22 asked about date of entry into the U.S.; 16 inquired about immigration status; 10 asked for Social Security cards or numbers and 9 questioned students about citizenship, among other related findings.

According to instructions that the New York State Education Department provided to school districts:

A person over 5 and under 21 years of age who has not received a high school diploma is entitled to attend the public schools.

In a 1982 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that children who are undocumented immigrants cannot be denied a free public education if they are, as a factual matter, district residents.

Stemming from that case, schools should avoid asking questions related to immigration status or that may reveal a child's immigration status, such as asking for a Social Security number.

When a birth certificate, baptism record or passport are unavailable, the school district may consider other documentary or recorded evidence to determine a child's age.

If districts collect immigration status data, they are instructed to do so after a student has enrolled in school so as not to inadvertently give the impression that information related to immigration status will be used in making enrollment determinations.

School districts must ensure that all students within the compulsory school age attend for full-time instruction.

Lack of evidence of a formal guardianship proceeding should not delay enrollment of a child who entered the United States as an unaccompanied minor.

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