Tennessee’s Shelby County Investigated Over Discrimination Claims

(Photo: Vimeo, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Vimeo, Creative Commons)

In Tennessee, Shelby County Schools (SCS) are being investigated by federal civil rights officials based on alleged bias demonstrated by district officers in the treatment of immigrant youngsters and their parents from Central America, according to a US Department of Education announcement.

Garance Burke of the Associated Press writes that the department's Office for Civil Rights was looking into "issues affecting English learners" along with Shelby County Schools leaders' communication with the parents.

The original complaint was filed with the DoE in February and alleged that children who were escaping Central American violence were being prevented from enrolling in Memphis high schools. Attorneys explained that a minimum of 12 students, 16-years-old and older, were sent to a currently closed adult school because the teens did not have transcripts or were already above the age that would allow them to graduate in a timely manner.

"We repeatedly expressed our concerns about the limited hours of the English program, the lack of structure and the desire of the child and families that their children (be) placed in traditional high school," reads the complaint filed by Memphis-based The Exchange Club Family Center, which alleged the district followed a "pattern and practice of denying immigrant students enrollment."

Research by the Associated Press found that the Memphis district was one of at least 35 districts in 14 states that had discouraged hundreds of minors traveling without their parents from enrolling in schools.

Some young people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were pushed into what supporters and attorneys called separate but unequal optional programs that were educational dead ends. The programs were also possibly in violation of federal law.

The minors were rerouted to English classes that took place only a few hours a week. In February, the English-language program was closed since very few students were completing the courses. The closings, in essence, ended the young people's chance for a formal education.

SCS spokesperson Natalia Powers said that there was a policy in place that permitted students 16-years-old and older to register in a GED class and, added Powers, when the program closed, pupils could attend similar classes that took place at a local nonprofit.

However, advocates and lawyers said their clients had not been offered the choice to enroll in a traditional high school. They added that the nonprofit did not teach English as a second language.

Migrant youth are supposed to be guaranteed access to America's schools. Still, the government has not come up with the funding or management that would enable monitoring of whether this access is taking place.

If this inquiry can show that the district discriminated against the migrant students, a resolution agreement could occur that would require the district to change its current procedures. If this action is not successful, the department could withhold funding, enforce other actions, or take the case to court. The completion of this type of investigation could take years, said DoE spokesperson Dorie Nolt.

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