New federal data show that the number of unaccompanied minors coming to Connecticut nearly tripled from 2018 to 2019. As the numbers continue to increase, it is important to keep in mind the significant obligations that public school districts have to those students, both federally and under state law.
Federal law requires that state and local educational agencies provide all children with equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level. That obligation extends to both homeless and unaccompanied youth.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (“Act”) defines an “unaccompanied youth” as “a homeless child or youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.” Designed to remove educational barriers and challenges faced by both homeless and unaccompanied youth, the Act unequivocally provides that unaccompanied youth have a right to attend school irrespective of their immigration status. In a Dear Colleague Letter dated May 8, 2014 (“Letter”), the U.S. Department of Education provided specific guidance related to student enrollment. The following is a summary of best practices in accordance with the Letter and the Act:
- Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Consistent with that prohibition, school districts may not request information with the purpose or result of denying access to public schools on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
- The Act requires that unaccompanied youth be immediately enrolled in any public school serving the attendance area where they are temporarily staying regardless of whether the student has the required enrollment documents.
- Unaccompanied youth are not barred from enrolling in public schools at the elementary and secondary level on the basis of their own citizenship or immigration status (or that of their parents or guardians). In fact, the undocumented or non-citizen status of a student (or his or her parent or guardian) is irrelevant to that student’s right to an elementary and secondary public education.
- While a district may require unaccompanied youth to provide proof of residency within the district, the list of documents that can be used to establish residency may not unlawfully bar or discourage a student who is undocumented (or whose parents are undocumented) from enrolling in school. Accordingly, it is not appropriate to ask such children or their parents or guardians for evidence of their citizenship status, and doing so may give rise to a finding of discrimination.
- A school district may not bar an unaccompanied youth from enrolling in its schools because he or she lacks a birth certificate (or has a foreign birth certificate).
- A school may not use an unaccompanied youth’s refusal to respond to a request for race and ethnicity data as a denial of the student’s enrollment.
- A district may not deny enrollment to an unaccompanied youth if he or she chooses not to provide a social security number.
- A district may not deny enrollment to an unaccompanied youth because he or she lacks the appropriate immunization records. The local educational agency’s (“LEA”) liaison must work to immediately obtain immunizations or immunization records for those students and those students must be enrolled in the interim.
Each LEA must have a homeless education liaison, and he or she should take steps to ensure that unaccompanied youth are identified, enrolled and accommodated. Specifically, liaisons should work with community agencies and school personnel to identify and immediately enroll eligible children and youth. Such students must be provided an equal opportunity to participate in all educational services for which they are eligible and must be provided with information regarding (and assistance in accessing) all transportation services. LEA’s homeless education liaison must also ensure that unaccompanied youth are provided referrals to appropriate services (i.e., health services) and that notice of their educational rights be publicly available in locations where such children and youth receive services. Any enrollment disputes concerning unaccompanied youth must be resolved promptly in accordance with the Act.
New State Law
Effective July 1, 2019, the Connecticut legislature increased protections afforded to homeless students in general. Included in the changes to the law, the legislature defined the term “unaccompanied youth” (as defined by the Act) and added it to the list of parties entitled to school accommodation rights, such as hearing procedures, including a right to request a hearing, and a right to appeal an adverse decision. As such, unaccompanied youth in Connecticut are afforded the same rights and protections as homeless students.
The burden of proof in residency hearings involving homeless and unaccompanied youth now rests on the Board. The new law specifically shifts the burden of proof in instances when a student is claiming to be homeless (including those students who are unaccompanied youth) to require that school districts prove, by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., it is more likely than not), that the student is not an unaccompanied youth or otherwise homeless.
In anticipation of a potential influx of unaccompanied students into Connecticut’s public schools, homeless education liaisons at public school districts in Connecticut should review existing district policies and procedures regarding homeless students, form relationships with service and relief agencies to identify and assist such students, and ensure immediate and equal access to educational services and opportunities for eligible students.
Finally, in considering such matters, please remember that unaccompanied youth who enroll in Connecticut school districts may have other legal rights, including special support for English language learners and, where appropriate, referral for evaluation for special education services.