Civil Rights Lawyers Ask Court to Block Laws Illegally Denying Homeless Children Equal Access to Education

Affiliate: ACLU of Hawaii
November 6, 2007 12:00 am

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HONOLULU – Advancing their class action lawsuit, Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) and the ACLU of Hawaii today filed a motion in federal court seeking an order to immediately halt state officials from enforcing laws and policies that block access by homeless children to public education. These measures are in violation of federal law.

“As we meet with homeless families and social service providers across the state, the number of children who have been or are being denied access to basic public education continues to grow. The state’s blatant violations of federal law have harmed children statewide and must be immediately corrected,” said William Durham of LEJ. “Congress has given the state funds to fulfill an important national mandate. There is no excuse for the state’s negligence – every day that goes by results in more children being denied an education.”

The latest round of legal actions includes requests to bar the state from carrying out specific practices that violate federal law such as denying homeless children entrance to school because they lack certain documentation, which has led to children missing school for days and weeks at a time. The state has also failed to provide transportation, which forces families of extremely limited means to fend for themselves and results in children being consistently tardy or absent from school.

The initial legal complaint, filed October 2, 2007, on behalf of several homeless parents and their children, charged the state with a systemic failure to provide homeless children with equal access to a free and appropriate public education in violation of the McKinney-Vento Act and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Lawyers want state officials responsible for overseeing the education and welfare of homeless children and their families to remove obstacles to the enrollment and attendance of homeless children at public school, to provide transportation to and from school, to coordinate with other government agencies to serve homeless children, and to ensure that homeless children have the same access to public education as all other children. In a companion motion, the lawyers have also asked the court to order that the plaintiffs represent all homeless students and their parents statewide.

Plaintiff Olivé Kaleauti said, “All I want to do is help my sons get a good education. I feel like no matter how hard I try to do this, the schools keep putting up barriers that prevent my children from going to school. My children and others like them are being punished for being homeless – but it’s not their fault.”

ACLU of Hawaii Legal Director Lois Perrin said, “Over one year ago the U.S. Department of Education notified the state that they were failing to comply with federal law, yet the state has done nothing to correct those deficiencies. While the state drags its feet, homeless children are denied an education. A preliminary injunction is necessary to avoid the immediate, profound and lasting harms on the lives of homeless children caused by the state’s non-compliance.”

Any homeless child or parent who has been denied access to school or transportation to public school and wants to tell his or her story confidentially or publicly should contact LEJ at (808) 779-1744 or the ACLU of Hawaii at (808) 522-5905.

The lawsuit names as defendants Judy Tonda, Department of Education (“DOE”) Homeless Coordinator; Patricia Hamamoto, DOE Superintendent; Robert McClelland, DOE Systems Accountability Office Director; Board of Education members Karen Knudsen, John Penebacker, Herbert Watanabe, Breene Harimoto, Dr. Eileen Clarke, Dr. Lei Ahu Isa, Kim Coco Iwamoto, Mary Cochran, Maggie Cox, Cec Heftel, Denise Matsumoto, Donna Ikeda, and Garrett Toguchi; and Chiyome Fukino, Department of Health Director.

LEJ and the ACLU are working with Paul Alston, Roman Amaguin, Steve Tannenbaum and Shellie Park-Hoapili of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing.

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