Barred Teen Pleased as Lawsuit is Dropped

Colleen Mastony and Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28, 2006

SOUTH FLORIDA—As the Elmwood Park school district withdrew a federal lawsuit Monday and ended a legal battle over the right of immigrants to attend public schools, the Ecuadorean teenager at the heart of the dispute said she is relieved that no other students will be turned away.

“I feel really happy for the other [students like me] who don’t have to go through what I went through,” said the teen, who was denied admission to Elmwood Park High School last fall.

Known only as Sharon M., the 14-year-old described her ordeal as she sat in her aunt’s South Florida home Monday.

Sharon said she went to the high school at least five times, starting in October, and often called to ask about being admitted.

“They always said, ‘No! No! No!’“‘ she said. “‘We won’t accept you because you are an immigrant.’“

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The Illinois State Board of Education intervened in the case in December, arguing that the Elmwood Park district should not turn away students because of their immigration status.

By then, Sharon had been out of school for more than a month, and her relatives decided to move her to South Florida to live with other family members. They enrolled her in a high school there without any trouble, her aunt said.

In Illinois, officials from Elmwood Park Community Unit School District 401 argued that Sharon was in the country on a valid tourist visa, which implied that she would return to her home country and therefore had no right to attend school in the U.S.

The state board argued that the district violated laws and rules that ensure students can attend public schools regardless of their immigration status.

This month, the district filed a federal lawsuit against the state board, asking a judge to prevent the board from taking punitive action.

On Thursday, the state board took the unprecedented step of voting to cut off $3.3 million in state aid to the district. The board stripped the district of its “recognition” status, which also meant its athletic competitions would be canceled.

Under intense pressure, the district backed down a day later, agreeing not to deny enrollment based on immigration status or even to ask students about their legal status. The district also agreed to drop its lawsuit against the state board.

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