Civil Rights Advocates Urge North Carolina Schools to Ensure Access for Immigrant Students


Civil Rights Advocates Urge North Carolina School Districts to Ensure Immigrant Students are not Denied Enrollment

Groups Urge Department of Justice to Take Action to Protect Students
WASHINGTON – A coalition of civil rights groups that filed a federal discrimination complaint earlier this year on behalf of immigrant students denied enrollment in North Carolina schools advised school districts of their legal obligations under federal law to provide equal enrollment opportunities for all students.
The groups also urged in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) today to take action after the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) inexplicably retracted earlier guidance requiring inclusive enrollment policies.
In letters to the school districts, the coalition included copies of recent federal guidance addressing improper enrollment practices that deny, delay or discourage enrollment of students based on their or their parent or guardian’s actual or perceived immigration status, including that of an unaccompanied child – a child who arrives in the United States without a parent or legal guardian and is placed in the care of a sponsor, such as a family member.
In the letter to the DOJ, the civil rights groups cited State School Superintendent June St. Clair Atkinson’s June 4 memo to school districts that outlines various instances where schools may deny enrollment to schoolchildren. The superintendent’s memo retracted an earlier memo DPI had issued on May 12 after working with the civil rights groups that called for nondiscriminatory enrollment opportunities for all students, including immigrant children. The coalition includes the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (LSSP), North Carolina Justice Center (NCJC) and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ).
“The actions taken by the Department of Public Instruction are troubling, especially given the vulnerability of many immigrant children, including unaccompanied children, in the state,” said Anjali Nair, SPLC staff attorney. “We are urging the Justice Department to take prompt action to ensure that no North Carolina school official unlawfully turns a child away at the schoolhouse door.”
The groups ask the DOJ to require North Carolina public schools to follow the law by adopting, promoting and enforcing a policy of nondiscrimination against students. A copy of the letter can be viewed here.
The letter to DOJ supplements the federal civil rights complaint the coalition filed in February describing discrimination at two North Carolina school districts. It outlines two incidents in which unaccompanied immigrant children were turned away from school because of their limited English proficiency, age or national origin. The complaint also notes that these incidents appear to be symptomatic of a larger problem in school districts across the state.
“Since originally filing our complaint on behalf of unaccompanied children in North Carolina, the urgency of ensuring access to public education for these children has only increased,” said Mark Bowers of LSSP. “We have seen hundreds of unaccompanied children placed in North Carolina since February. We are now getting a fuller picture of the crisis they are escaping: poverty, violence and exploitation. The stability of school and the support it offers is an opportunity for these children to begin to heal. The mixed messages coming from DPI only put this vulnerable population at more risk of mistreatment and exploitation by enabling school districts to continue to deny or place obstacles to the enrollment of unaccompanied children.”
After the original DOJ complaint was filed, Atkinson sent a memo to school administrators on May 12 that reminded districts that they may not deny enrollment on the basis of a child’s English language skills, age or lack of a certified birth certificate or Social Security number. It even noted that schools “may not ask questions regarding … immigration status.”
This guidance was essentially retracted less than a month later by the superintendent’s June 4 memo.
“The June guidance took away clear language DPI had provided to school districts back in May regarding compliance with federal and state law,” said George Eppsteiner, staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The new guidance is vague, confusing and raises questions as to the seriousness of this agency in assuring nondiscrimination in the enrollment process at North Carolina’s public schools.”
More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Plyler v. Doe that it is unconstitutional to deny a child a public education based on his or her immigration status. To ensure that enrollment in public school is not chilled, federal law requires that schools requesting a Social Security number indicate that disclosing the number is voluntary; provide the statutory or other basis upon which it is seeking the number; and explain how the number will be used.
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The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see
Legal Services of Southern Piedmont’s mission is to ensure a full measure of justice for those in need, providing a wide range of civil legal assistance to eligible low-income persons in the Charlotte metropolitan area and west-central N.C. LSSP accomplishes its mission through a variety of legal advocacy strategies including individual advice and representation, community education and outreach, representation of groups, self-help remedies, collaboration with other agencies, community economic development, legislative and administrative advocacy, and impact litigation.
The North Carolina Justice Center is a leading progressive research and advocacy group. The organization’s mission is to eliminate poverty in North Carolina by ensuring that every household in the state has access to the resources, services and fair treatment it needs to achieve economic security.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is a nonprofit organization founded by a multidisciplinary group, predominantly people of color, who believe that families and communities engaged in social justice struggles need a team of lawyers, social scientists, community organizers and media specialists to support them in their efforts to dismantle structural racism and oppression. For more information, see