Dear Legal Mailbag:
As we bring students back for in-school learning, I am reminded that COVID isn’t our only challenge. A parent was in my office yesterday, yelling at me that I had violated her rights when I permitted her fifteen-year-old daughter to enroll at our high school. Apparently, this mother and the daughter had a fight, and the daughter ran away last week to live with her friend in our town. The problem for me is that the runaway daughter then enrolled in our high school.
We have procedures to make sure that students are eligible for free school privileges. In checking on this case, I found out that we gave the runaway girl the paperwork, and both she and the parents of the friend (i.e., the host family) came into school and signed off on the new residence. I called the angry parent back and explained the situation, but she wasn’t having any of it. She told me that we had violated her rights by enrolling her daughter in our school without her permission, and she told me that I have exactly 24 hours to disenroll her daughter before she will be suing us.
Can I just disenroll the student? We probably messed up by not checking with the mother first, and I have more important things to worry about than this family squabble!
Not My Problem
Making sure that children are educated is an important public policy, and one might reasonably ask where the runaway daughter would be able to attend school if not in your district where she is now living. At this point, this student is your responsibility, and you cannot simply disenroll or otherwise exclude her from school.
Normally, students live with parents or guardians when they enroll in school, but not always, and those children are entitled to go to school too. As you might imagine, Legal Mailbag knows about a statute in Connecticut that deals with such situations. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-253(d) provides in relevant part:
Children residing with relatives or nonrelatives, when it is the intention of such relatives or nonrelatives and of the children or their parents or guardians that such residence is to be permanent, provided without pay and not for the sole purpose of obtaining school accommodations . . . shall be entitled to all free school privileges accorded to resident children of the school district in which they then reside.
In plain English, students living apart from their parents are entitled to attend school in the district in which they then reside if such residence is
- provided without pay; and
- not for the sole purpose of education.
Each of these requirements must be read in a practical sense. Permanent simply means for an indefinite period. If a student lives with a friend during the week on school days for the semester, that would not be “permanent.” By contrast, here the daughter is living with the host family for the indefinite future, and absent some other information she meets the first criterion.
The runaway daughter also appears to meet the second and third criteria. The “provided without pay” prong is intended to prohibit “rooming house” situations in which enterprising people could open up their homes for a charge to permit children to board with them and attend school in their town. Similarly, there is no indication that the daughter is residing with the host family “for the sole purpose of education.” The fight between mother and daughter provided unrelated cause for the change in residence.
The mother’s claim that your district somehow violated her rights by enrolling the student is without merit. Interestingly, the statute does not require parental approval of such arrangements – it refers to the intent “of the children or their parents” that the residence be permanent, provided without pay, and not for the sole purpose of education. Parents do not have to approve of such arrangements, and that makes sense. The public policy of assuring that students are educated would be undermined if parent objection would prevent the district where the student then resides from providing education.
Finally, in any case in which residence (and thus eligibility for free school privileges) is disputed, school officials may not simply disenroll students. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-186 expressly provides in such cases that school officials must (1) notify parents of their finding that the student is not eligible and of their right to a hearing, and (2) permit the student to continue to attend school pending the outcome of such hearing. This information is not relevant to your question about the runaway daughter, but Legal Mailbag is happy to provide it to you at no extra charge.