During a disaster, children may get separated from their parents or guardians. Parents may place children with friends or relatives during an emergency evacuation or until their damaged home can be restored. Other youth may be separated from their parents or guardian and be on their own entirely during this time. Displaced children or those experiencing homelessness as a result of a disaster still have the right to go to school during these difficult times.
The McKinney-Vento (the “Act”) is a federal law that ensures the right of students to go to school, even when they are homeless or don’t have a permanent address. The Act aims to reduce barriers that may prevent homeless children from enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school. Barriers to school attendance may include obtaining transportation, meeting residency requirements, and providing required documentation, such as birth certificates and medical records. You can plan strategies to ensure that your child is enrolled in school and provided necessary services to help them survive and recover from a declared disaster.
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
According to the Act, “homeless” or “displaced” children who have lost their housing have the certain right to attend school, no matter where they live or how long they have lived there. When a disaster strikes, many families may become displaced. Their homes might get destroyed. They may have nowhere left to work. And, they may lose their schools. Children displaced by disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and wildfires are considered “homeless” under the Act. Florida gets federal money under this Act, so every school district must follow this law. Under the Act, your student has special rights if they are homeless, disabled, or displaced due to a disaster.
Youth have the right to attend either:
(a) the school nearest to where they are living; or
(b) the school where they were last enrolled (called “school of origin”), even if they move out of the school district.
When they choose to go to the school in the area where they are living, the school must immediately let students enroll, attend classes, and participate fully in school activities, even if students do not have a parent or guardian with them or documents typically required for enrollment, such as birth certificates, proof of residency, medical records, and school records.
Under the Act, you have a right to a timely appeal of any refusals to enroll your child.
Displaced children should get the same education as other children. If your child was in any special program before the disaster, they are entitled to the same services afterward. This includes Special Education and Free Lunch programs. The Homeless Liaison will make sure your child gets all their services as required by other laws. They will track down lost papers and educational plans so your child can get the individualized education they require.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?
If your child is considered displaced/homeless then the school district MUST enroll your child without delay. Your attestation or declaration of displacement or homelessness is enough to move the enrollment forward. Although the school may require records to be transferred from another school or district, this is not a reason for them to make your child wait to attend school.
If your child is admitted under the provisions of the Act, then your child is also entitled to other services like assistance with necessary immunizations, records, transportation, tutoring, free school meals, or before/after school care.
Your child must be enrolled even if you have lost their school records and medical records. If you cannot prove where you currently live or prove your child has had their required shots, they must be let in. School staff should send you to the Homeless Liaison for help recovering records and getting shots.
Schools cannot delay enrollment by creating barriers like additional documentation requirements, contacting housing authorities or landlords, asking questions that are too intrusive or personal, following or watching your family, talking to your neighbors about your student’s living situation, discussing your student’s situation in a public area where others can hear, or threatening or intimidating students away from the school.
Every school district must have a Homeless Liaison. The Homeless Liaison teaches parents of displaced children about their rights. They make sure children have access to a free and appropriate education. They track down lost records. They settle arguments over school enrollment. It is their job to go out and find all the displaced children in the school district and take care of their school needs. If the staff at the school does not know who or where this person is, ask them to call the main school board office and find out.
For county school board homeless liaison phone numbers, click here. In “Program Area,” scroll down to “Title X Homeless Contacts.” In “District Area,” select the district where you are enrolling your child.
The district in which the student chooses to attend school must provide or arrange transportation. The Homeless Liaison arranges transportation so that displaced children can get to school. This can be done by school bus or some other way, such as a public bus or even a taxi. However it gets done, it is the school board’s job. If they say no, they must tell you no in writing.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION?
If the school refuses to enroll your child, then the school must state their refusal in writing and explain the reason for refusing admission. The school must also tell you in writing that you have the right to an appeal to challenge the decision. The school must give you the name and contact information of the Homeless Liaison. Most importantly, they must enroll your child in that school right away and provide transportation. Your child gets to stay in that school until the dispute is settled.
The school where you want to enroll your child is not allowed to place them into special classes or separate schools for displaced children. Displaced children may not be segregated (put aside) in any way just because they are displaced.
The best thing to do if the school or Homeless Liaison is not helping you is to contact your nearest Legal Aid office for help. These things are required by federal law. A Legal Aid attorney can help make the schools do their job.