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Alabama school won't let Latino teen enroll, rights group says

By Nick Valencia, CNN
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Schools superintendent denies discrimination, says student welcome to enroll
  • Southern Poverty Law Center: Student not allowed to enroll because he was born in Mexico
  • The teen has been in the U.S. since he was 1 and moved to Alabama in January
  • "It's like I have nothing to accomplish. I just feel worthless," teen says

(CNN) -- An Alabama public high school declined to enroll a 17-year-old Latino student twice "simply because he was born in Mexico," the Southern Poverty Law Center said Tuesday.

The teen, identified only as "J.T." by the SPLC, endured discrimination when he attempted to enroll at Fort Payne High School in January after moving to Alabama from Colorado, the civil rights group said. J.T. immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 1, according to SPLC staff attorney Caren Short.

The student's family met with the district superintendent and "brought a completed enrollment application, proof of residency in the school district, an immunization record and a Social Security card," but J.T. was still denied enrollment, the SPLC said.

"The principal did not even look at the documents. After J.T. said he had to make up two failed classes from the previous year, the principal said he couldn't enroll him," the SPLC said.

Fort Payne City Schools Superintendent Jim Cunningham said the law forbids him giving information that could identify a student, as well a publicly responding about the "enrollment concern that has been presented to me."

"However, I can unequivocally confirm that the Fort Payne City School System in no manner utilizes or considers an individual's national origin in its enrollment decisions. Indeed, even a cursory review of the system's current student population, confirms the enrollment of a diverse student body," he said in a prepared statement.

He further said, "The representative for the individual at issue has been specifically advised that he is more than welcome to immediately enroll into the system subject to the same enrollment criteria applicable to any individual such as himself that is over the age of mandatory school attendance. The individual has been requested to meet with the system this week in order to facilitate the enrollment request."

Michael Sibley, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Education, told CNN, "We certainly tolerate no type of discrimination and need to look into it."

In a letter to Cunningham, the SPLC wrote that the "practices violate federal law that bars discrimination based on national origin, immigration status or limited English proficiency."

The school told the family it was not obligated to enroll J.T. because he is 17, according a statement by the SPLC.

"It makes me feel like I dropped out," J.T. said in a statement. "It's like I have nothing to accomplish. I just feel worthless."

Alabama state law requires children between the ages of 6 and 17 to attend school, but "it does not grant the right to deny a child enrollment simply because he or she is 17," the letter said.

"This excuse has no basis in district or state education policy," the letter said. "It even violates the nondiscrimination policies of the Alabama Department of Education and the district."

The SPLC, a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Alabama, has instructed the district to enroll the student by April 14.

Asked if there were other documented cases of this occurring, Short said the SPLC has heard similar reports out of Fort Payne but emphasized that the group was representing only one teen.

She further said that while the SPLC doesn't have any national figures available, the U.S. justice and education departments issued a letter to school districts in May 2011 to ensure that no child was denied the opportunity to enroll in school or discouraged from enrolling based on origin or immigrations status.

The guidance "was issued when many states were passing anti-immigrant legislation, including Alabama's (House Bill 56), which required schools to record the immigration status of children enrolling in school," Short said in an e-mail.

"Of course, that provision of the law has been stopped by a federal court. But there remains concern that schools are potentially excluding children based on their national origin, immigration status, or limited English proficiency."

Complaint claims school district discriminated against Latino students

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