School Doors 'Open to All Children,' Regardless of Citizenship, Feds Remind Public School System

By Susan Jones | July 11, 2014 | 10:17 AM EDT

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( - The Obama administration, invoking civil rights law, has directed Louisiana's Jefferson Parish Public School System to make sure that all students can enroll in school, regardless of whether they or their parents are in the country illegally.

“This agreement will ensure that in Jefferson Parish, the doors to school and to opportunity will be open to all children, regardless of background,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The three-year agreement -- dictated by the civil rights offices of both the Justice Department and the Education Department -- follows a 2012 complaint alleging "national origin discrimination" against Latino students and parents.

That complaint was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of 16 Latino students and their families.

The SPLC alleged that the school created a hostile environment by allowing employees to harass Latino students about their citizenship status. Some students complained that school officials asked for proof of their Social Security Numbers before they were allowed to graduate. One Latino student accused a teacher of demeaning him with a racial slur. And the complaint also said the school system failed to provide adequate translation and interpretation services.

The resulting federal investigation culminated in a 16-page, 55-point "voluntary" agreement, announced this week.

Among other actions, the Jefferson Parish Public School System must:

-- Revise its enrollment and registration materials and policies before the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year to make sure they do not exclude or discourage students from enrolling based on citizenship or immigration status;

-- Ensure that parents and students are not asked to produce a Social Security Number, Social Security card, state-issued ID or other document that requires proof of citizenship or immigration status in order to enroll or graduate;

-- Implement a translation and interpretation policy so non-English-speaking parents receive essential information in a language they understand;

-- Provide anti-harassment, anti-bullying and diversity training for the faculty, staff and students of West Jefferson High School, where the alleged harassment and bullying occurred;

-- Annually administer a "school climate survey" at West Jefferson High School to assess the presence of harassment and bullying on the basis of national origin, race and/or color.

The agreement also includes staff training, the creation of a bilingual parent advisory committee, and all sorts of record-keeping, sign-posting, and other administrative  requirements.

The federal government requires the school system to provide an annual report "detailing its efforts to comply with the Agreement"; and it reserves the right to send federal officials "to conduct site visits, observe trainings, interview JPPSS staff and students, confer with the Equity Center, and request such additional reports or data as are necessary for the United States to evaluate JPPSS's compliance with the terms of the Agreement and federal law."

The agreement is effective for three years, and before it is terminated, the federal government will have 60 calendar days from the receipt of the 2016-2017 annual report "to identify concerns or objections regarding JPPSS 's compliance."

The Jefferson Parish Public School System says it "continues to proactively set policies and practices in place that have improved communications with families and students of limited English proficiency."

It also tapped a former elementary school principal to serve as the new executive director of English Language Learners. She will be responsible for "overseeing programs and strategies that serve the district’s growing population of English language learners."