Homeless Children Denied Equal Access to Education

October 2, 2007

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

Civil Rights Groups File Federal Class Action Lawsuit Against State of Hawaii

HONOLULU - Calling the state of Hawaii's treatment of homeless children a travesty, the American Civil Liberties Union joined other civil rights groups and attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit today challenging the state's failure to provide homeless children with equal access to public education. The lawsuit - filed on behalf of three homeless parents and their children - charges state officials with ignoring their legal obligations to provide homeless children with equal access to a free and appropriate public education in violation of the McKinney-Vento Act ("the Act"). The lawsuit also charges state officials with violating constitutional requirements to provide equal access to public education without regard to the status of homelessness.

"The State's complete disregard of its duty to assist this extremely vulnerable population is indefensible," said Lois Perrin, ACLU of Hawaii Legal Director. The ACLU of Hawaii, Lawyers for Equal Justice ("LEJ") and the law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing filed the lawsuit in federal district court seeking a court order requiring the state to fulfill its legal obligations and protect the educational rights of homeless students and their parents. The three homeless parents and their children seek to represent all homeless students and their parents in Hawaii.

Homeless parents and children face innumerable barriers when they try to access education in the Hawaii public school system. Alice Greenwood, one of eight plaintiffs named in the suit and a homeless parent with physical disabilities whose 6-year-old child missed 33 days of school last year because state officials failed to provide transportation said, "Every child deserves an education. He shouldn't be punished just because he's homeless. It's not his fault."

Olivé Kaleuati and Venise Lewis reported similar problems. School officials refused to allow Kaleuati's children to enroll because they were unable to provide a permanent address or moved out of the school area. As a result, the children were forced to miss school or change schools. Lewis reported numerous incidences where her children had to skip school because she had no money to pay for bus fare. Plaintiffs repeatedly pled with school officials for help - only to be threatened or ignored. Tragically, these examples are typical of the problems reported by homeless parents and children throughout the state.

The McKinney-Vento Act was enacted in 1987 to break down these barriers and ensure that children in homeless situations can enroll in, attend and succeed in school and preschool programs. Although the state receives hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in federal grant money specifically earmarked to implement the Act and assist homeless families, the lawsuit charges that the state has failed completely to uphold its duties under the Act and to provide homeless children with equal access to a free and appropriate public education.

"It is absolutely shocking that the state has failed to assist these children despite having been on formal notice of its noncompliance since 2006," said Perrin.

William Durham, LEJ attorney, said, "For homeless children and their parents, education is the way out of a deplorable situation - yet the state has erected barriers for them at every turn in violation of federal law and the Constitution. By bringing this lawsuit, we are fighting for homeless children to get the education they need and deserve."

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.

A copy of the complaint can be found online at: www.acluhawaii.org/downloads/news/071002MVComplaint.pdf

Statistics image