By Andrew Ballard
The Mamaroneck Union Free School District has fallen under scrutiny in recent months after the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed an appeal to the New York State Commissioner of Education on May 3, claiming that the District had “unlawfully” denied a 16 year-old Larchmont resident’s request to enroll at Mamaroneck High School and requesting that the Commissioner grant him enrollment.
The teen and his family—who resided previously in the New Rochelle School District and who immigrated originally to the US from Guatemala—moved to Larchmont on April 1, 2016. In anticipation of the transfer, his mother had filed necessary papers for her children to transfer from New Rochelle public schools to those in Mamaroneck on March 29.
After a review of submitted forms, the District notified the student’s mother via letter on April 4, that, while the boy’s two younger siblings would be free to enroll at the appropriate District schools, the eldest child would not be granted tuition-free matriculation at the High School.
Ms. Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU, condemned the District’s reasoning, calling it “a thinly veiled excuse for discrimination.”
The letter justified the decision by stating that the boy (who will remain unidentified, for reasons of privacy) “previously graduated from the highest level of compulsory education offered in Guatemala.” The District later updated the statement to read that the student had completed the equivalence of secondary education in Guatemala.
The New York State Education Law, Section 3202, Title IV, Article 65, Part I is at the core of disputes of the legality of the denial. It reads, “A person over five and under twenty-one years of age who has not received a high school diploma is entitled to attend the public schools maintained in the district in which such person resides without the payment of tuition.”
Speaking to The Globe in an interview, Ms. Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU, condemned the District’s reasoning, calling it “a thinly veiled excuse for discrimination.”
“A junior high school diploma is not the same as a high school diploma,” Lieberman said, “not allowing this 16-year-old to pursue his diploma would be discrimination.”
Mamaroneck Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Shaps voiced the District’s viewed compliance with State laws and objection to the NYCLU’s accusations.
The NYCLU has, in this case, banked on a philosophy of education for all, which Lieberman recited to The Globe, saying “Every child in the State of New York has the right to go to school until they either get a diploma or reach the age of 21.” She added, “That goes for all races of all ethnicities, whether they’re immigrants or citizens…”
However, while sitting down with The Globe to discuss the dispute, Mamaroneck
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Shaps voiced the District’s viewed compliance with State laws and objection to the NYCLU’s accusations.
“There has to be alignment between policy, commissioner regulations, and law…” Shaps told The Globe,“ We completed a transcript review, which is part of the process, and it was our determination that the student had met the secondary level requirement in the home country,” adding later that the decision of whether to admit the student was, “objective.”
Shaps also voiced his opinion that prior press coverage was misrepresenting the situation.
“This is not about where a child comes from.”-Dr. Robert Shaps, Superintendent, MUFSD
“Unfortunately, I think in reading the papers and watching the TV’s, this is put forth as a political or emotional issue…” he said, “The [NYCLU]…is making this political and saying that every person under the age of 21 should have [the right to enrollment in public schools], but actually that’s not the standard of the Commissioner.” He added, “If it was, we would have gone forward.”
On May 16, the District received a temporary ruling from New York Commissioner of Education Ms. Mary Ellen Elia indicating that “the stay,” or request for enrollment “requested by petitioner…is hereby granted,” and ordering the MUFSD to enroll the teen. That order, the letter signaled, was only temporary, however, and would only be effective “pending an ultimate determination of the appeal” at a later date.
NYCLU: “We have every reason to have faith that the Commissioner will agree that the student has a right to enroll in Mamaroneck permanently.”
The student was enrolled immediately after the order. Mamaroneck Schools is now required to send all forms used in the enrollment decision, including the student’s transcript and all registration documents, in order to respond to the family’s complaint.
While acknowledging that the interim ruling was more a matter of procedure than final verdict, Lieberman called the order “a step in the right direction” and expressed confidence that the outcome would favor the family’s petition, saying, “We have every reason to have faith that the Commissioner will agree that the student has a right to enroll in Mamaroneck permanently.”
However, Shaps also expressed much certainty in the District’s review process and its decision to deny admission. He told The Globe that the District does not view the order as an indication of the ultimate decree.
“The language is clear and the action is that, ‘Do not interpret the stay to have any bearing on the final determination that will be months [to be made],’” Shaps said, referring to the notice.
“We’ve had a number of kids over the last several years where, whether it’s the Republic of Georgia…or China, or other countries, where, when we do their transcript review, …we’ve said, ‘Unfortunately, you’ve already earned your high school equivalent, and we can’t enroll you,’” he added, “And that’s what happened in this case.”
Yet the NYCLU maintains that the District’s decision is an “egregious” violation of both the New York and US Constitutions, as well as a encroachment on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and several sections of New York’s Education Law, which state that public schools may not deny enrollment on grounds of national origin.
Lieberman expanded on such claims in what she sees as an amplifying aspect of international events.
“So many young people have fled horrifically dangerous situations in a number of central American countries and come here to save their lives,” she said, “The notion that rather than welcoming young people as refugees, we would—any locality would—seek to strip them of their right to get an education and treat them as inferior is really unacceptable
Shaps and the District, however, maintain that the teen’s Guatemalan heritage played no role in its decision, telling the newspaper, “This is not about where a child comes from.”
Shaps expressed what he viewed as an inaccurate portrayal of the District as discriminatory in barring the teen. He told The Globe that diversity in Mamaroneck schools is something that is valued greatly and pointed out that, just this fall, the District was recognized by the White House’s Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics as one of the nation’s “bright spots in Hispanic education.”
He added on to his response, saying, “The reality is that we believe in every child’s right to a public education. That’s our policy. That’s the Board’s policy,” adding, “We are just responsible for acting within [State regulations].”
Both parties have pointed to contextual information to strengthen their cases. The District has highlighted their admission of the barred teen’s two younger siblings in lower-level schools in Mamaroneck as evidence of objectivity, while the NYCLU has emphasized that the teen was able to enroll in classes at New Rochelle High School.
In suit, both parties have refuted the arguments of the other.
The NYCLU’s Donna Lieberman told The Globe, “I’m sure that nobody would accept it if the school district said to somebody who grew up in town that we’re going to let your two siblings in but you went to junior high school here so you don’t get to go to high school,” adding, “It makes no sense.”
Shaps, in response to the teen’s time at New Rochelle High School, told The Globe that New Rochelle had not received any transcript from the teen’s family prior to his enrollment.
At the time this article was published, there had been no statement from the State Commissioner of Education regarding the date of a final ruling.
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