Homeless group sues schools

April 29, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

A civil rights advocacy group has filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Baltimore County Board of Education, contending that the public school system has not met its obligations to provide educational continuity to homeless students.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday on behalf of three homeless families who say were not informed by the school system that federal law allows the children to attend the school they had been enrolled in before losing their permanent housing or that they are allowed to enroll in the school closest to their temporary housing.

The families also were not initially provided with the required transportation, the lawsuit alleges.

"I think it's a systematic issue," said Francine K. Hahn, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the families. "There is a structure that's not efficient or effective."

The county schools rely on regional pupil personnel workers to identify homeless students, inform their parents about school choice and connect them with such services as transportation, Hahn said.

"It creates a bottleneck," Hahn said.

Charles A. Herndon, a spokesman for Baltimore County's public schools, declined to comment on the pending litigation yesterday.

One of the plaintiffs, Philly Peterson, is the mother of a 7-year-old girl and lived in a county shelter from October to April. She says she was not told that the county school system was required to provide transportation to the girl to continue taking classes in the city where she had attended first grade. She also was not informed that the child was allowed to enroll in the nearby county school, according to court papers.

As a result, the girl and her mother, who was pregnant at the time, traveled by bus 2 1/2 hours each way to get to the city school, the lawsuit says.

Peterson's daughter ended up failing the first grade, Hahn said.

When Peterson and her children moved to temporary housing in Pikesville, officials at the nearby county school didn't allow the child to enroll until her city school records could be obtained, resulting in a two-week delay in admission and another two- to three-day delay in free lunch service while the girl's mother completed an application, the lawsuit says.

In the second case, the school system didn't provide adequate transportation to a 15-year-old living with his mother, Tanya Bullock, at an emergency shelter in Arbutus after they were evicted from their Rosedale apartment, the lawsuit contends.

As a result, the boy, who has a learning disability, repeatedly arrived late for school and missed breakfast served at the school, according to the suit.

In the third case, the lawsuit contends that two girls, ages 7 and 6, who now live in transitional housing in Owings Mills with their mother, Hattie Wheeler, did not receive transportation or other services they were entitled to because the school system hasn't identified the family as homeless.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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