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Westbury school district changing immigrant student policy

The Westbury school district will also retain an

The Westbury school district will also retain an ombudsman and an independent monitor while offering educational enrichment services as part of the settlement. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

The Westbury school district has agreed to guarantee immigrant students’ constitutional right to an education by entering a settlement with the state attorney general’s office that puts in place monitoring and reporting requirements until 2019.

The pact follows an investigation that looked back three years at reports of immigrants running into problems while seeking to register in Westbury schools. Students were delayed or kept from enrolling in several ways, including when they lacked documentation or because the district sent older students to an alternative program, the probe found.

The settlement, announced Monday, requires the district to retain an ombudsman and an independent monitor while offering educational enrichment services to students who were delayed or kept from starting regular classes.

The agreement in large part mirrors settlements with Hempstead and 20 other districts in 14 upstate counties that were investigated after reports that immigrant students were facing illegal barriers to registration.

All children ages 5 to 21 are guaranteed an education, regardless of their immigration status, by the U.S. Constitution and state law.

The enrollment crisis hit a peak in 2014 as the number of immigrant children coming illegally to the United States as unaccompanied minors surged, sending thousands of children to New York, including Long Island.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said those children belong in class.

“Education is the bedrock of our American democracy, and every child in our country — no matter where they were born — deserves the chance to attend school and seek a diploma,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “I am pleased that the Westbury district has agreed to come into compliance with the law and that it will also provide additional services to any student who was, until now, unable to enroll in their local school or attend a degree-bearing high school program.”

A Schneiderman spokesman said he could not disclose how many other districts have been or still may be under investigation apart from those that have entered into settlements.

Hempstead’s enrollment has been under monitoring since March 2015. None of the other 20 districts that were investigated and entered their agreements in February 2015 were on the Island or in New York City.

Schneiderman’s office said it looked at Westbury’s enrollment practices as far back as summer 2012 and through fall 2015. The inquiry found that the district denied or delayed the enrollment of students, including those who had arrived from Central and South America.

The delays lasted as long as six months and involved time spent requesting documentation about students’ national origin and citizenship status, the attorney general’s office said.

The district “had an unwritten policy of excluding ELLs [English language learners] over the age of 16 from the district’s only public high school” by diverting them to English as a second language or high school equivalency classes, the findings said.

Mary A. Lagnado, Westbury schools’ superintendent, said in a written statement that the district will work to comply.

“The steps include revising student enrollment procedures, training our staff and appointing individuals to oversee student enrollment to ensure that the rights of the students are protected, while also limiting access to the district’s schools and to those who legitimately reside within the district’s boundaries,” Lagnado wrote.

School board president Pless M. Dickerson, said the district’s population “is exploding,” partly because of immigrants and others moving to the area, but stated that “we are not keeping students out.”

Official enrollment figures from the state Education Department show Westbury’s enrollment grew 16 percent from the 2010-11 to the 2014-15 school year, rising to 4,844 students. Registration is up to 5,286 students this year, Dickerson said.

Advocates who had reported some of the problems said changes are needed to welcome all students.

Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, said his organization encountered dozens of Westbury children who had not been able to register because of lack of documentation.

“We, along with many other organizations in the area, met with the attorney general’s office and we welcomed the fact that they took an interest,” Young said. “Those are children of parents living in the district and they are entitled to an education the same as any other child, and that’s under the Constitution,” which guarantees equal access to education.

As part of the deal, the district will be expected to revise enrollment materials and procedures, train staff and within 60 days hire an ombudsman to ensure compliance, as well as an independent monitor to track and report progress.

The district is instructed to ensure that its personnel no longer ask “for information or documentation, or otherwise create barriers that have the purpose or result of chilling, discouraging or denying enrollment by students on the basis of their citizenship or immigration status.”

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