One of the first cases I brought as the newly-minted Children & Youth Staff Attorney back in 2008 involved a child staying at a day shelter in Carlynton, a suburb of Pittsburgh, who was prevented from enrolling in the school district. The school superintendent didn’t want this shelter to be open in his neighborhood, so he penalized her educational progress, arguing that because she sometimes slept outside the district, she was not eligible to attend his district’s schools. Despite clear law to the contrary, the district wouldn’t negotiate.
We brought the case to the state dispute resolution process and got the child provisionally enrolled. But before the state could make a final ruling, the family found permanent housing, and we had to drop the case. We warned the state that a similar situation was bound to arise, and they should issue guidance making clear that schools were obligated to accept these students, but they declined, and I was left both personally and professionally with a loose end.
Sure enough, last fall another family came to the shelter, and their four children were prevented from enrolling. We again turned to the state process, but the state, incredibly, ruled that not only were the children not entitled to attend in Carlynton, they couldn’t tell us which district the children were eligible to attend! We filed a federal lawsuit with our partners at the Education Law Center, getting the children immediately enrolled. Soon after, realizing the law was on our side, the State began negotiations with us.
Today, we settled the case. The district admitted they were wrong, and the state created new official guidance to make clear that homeless students can’t control their overnight accommodations, and must be allowed to any school where they have a substantial connection to the area. I’m very happy for the students of Pennsylvania, and the Law Center will be promoting this guidance nationally as model language for other states to adopt. But since this was one of my first cases – and interrupted at that – I’m today celebrating that I’ve closed this loose end, and justice has finally been served.
-Eric Tars, Children & Youth Attorney