HooverHighSchoolWhat does Hoover High School, Alabama’s largest public high school, have to do with homeless students? A lot.

The snowstorm we just endured rendered many of our loved ones homeless, if only temporarily. Some were trapped in cars overnight. Some slept in shelters with strangers. Our children spent the night in schools. The comfortable safety net that usually supports us was nowhere to be found. By now, most have found our way home. Back to the hammock of our safety net.

For too many children in Alabama, there is no safety net, no home. They are homeless. The most recent numbers available show 17,670 homeless children were enrolled in Alabama’s K-12 public schools during the 2011-2012 school year. School can be tough to navigate when a child is homeless.

Federal law places a safety net around homeless children in our schools. School districts are required to offer that safety net to homeless children.

And now, a federal judge in Birmingham is charged with determining whether a jury will decide how wide that net is and whether a district can be held accountable when they fail to provide those protections and services. The outcome of this case will likely impact homeless students across the country.

This case is big. Really big. And Alabama’s track record of limiting the reach of federal protections should be enough to catch the attention of homeless advocates across the country.

The Hoover City Board of Education that was in place in 2009, Superintendent Andy Craig, then-Assistant Superintendent Carol Barber, and Homeless Liaison Wayne Smith are being sued in their official and individual capacities for allegedly failing to appropriately identify and provide appropriate services and supports to each plaintiff when they became homeless while enrolled in Hoover City Schools. Plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief (meaning they want Hoover City Schools to be ordered to stop violating the Act), attorney fees, and unspecified damages related to the loss of scholarships, fees paid, and a yearbook for their graduation year.

The suit was filed in January 2012. Motions have gone back and forth, delaying progression of the case.

On January 15, attorneys were called to Judge David Proctor’s courtroom to argue points that would decide whether the case will continue on to trial. After an hour of arguments, questions, and further discussion, Judge Proctor ordered attorneys to file briefs on two specific issues: what damages are recoverable and how far the law reaches into educational participation.

The Judge also invited amicus curiae briefs from interested parties on those issues. All briefs are due February 13 at 4:30 p.m.

The Federal Law Protecting and Supporting Homeless Children

When a child becomes homeless, federal protections kick in under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (the “Act”). This Act was originally passed in 1987 to ensure that children who are homeless are provided the necessary supports and services to keep the child’s life a stable as possible during that difficult time. It has been reworked and added to over the years, and the current law was last reauthorized by Congress in 2002.

This simple definition of homelessness appears on the Bessemer City Schools’ district web site:

A family living in temporary shelter, hotel or motel, campground, vehicle or living in substandard housing or doubled up with friends or relatives because they don’t have a place of their own due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.

An unaccompanied youth who is a runaway, in temporary foster care, or is not in physical custody of a parent or guardian, and does not have a permanent nighttime residence.

An important note about “doubled up“. The term “doubled (or doubling) up” is used in a variety of ways. As it relates to the Act, the type of “doubling up” that makes a child eligible for services under the Act is generally accepted to be a temporary situation.  Whereas “a long-term, cooperative living arrangement among families or friends that is fixed, regular, and adequate should not be considered a homeless situation, even if the parties are living together to save money” (Determining Eligibility for Rights and Services Under the McKinney-Vento Act“, National Center for Homeless Education, p. 3).

What a School District Must Do Under the Act

The law is clear about what is required of school districts: appropriately identify homeless children and ensure no barriers exist to “participating fully in educational activities”. Guidance from the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) clearly states that extracurricular fees should be waived or paid for with funds obtained in the Act or with Title I funds (question 70).

In order to accomplish this, every school district must appoint a district homeless liaison. The liaison has many responsibilities, one being to ensure that all faculty and staff, including coaches and bus drivers and lunchroom workers, are trained to detect signs of homelessness, as children are often reluctant to tell anyone at school that they have become homeless.

The liaison is also responsible for coordinating services and supports for homeless children. The ALSDE acknowledges “poverty, unstable and often unhealthy living situations, and emotional trauma of homelessness place even outstanding students at risk of academic regression and failure” (question 90).

Identification Is Crucial

Without proper identification, homeless children can slip through the cracks.

Through the years, school officials have proclaimed their skepticism about whether claims of homelessness are being made to “take advantage” of the school district or to enroll in a school district in which the family could not afford to live permanently.

Attorney Donald Sweeney successfully had a plaintiff’s lawsuit tossed out when she filed suit against Mountain Brook City Schools for refusing to enroll her children under homeless provisions in January 2011. It is extremely important to note that this suit was tossed out due to technicalities, and the real question of whether the children met the definition of “homeless” never made it to the courtroom.

Which Services and Supports Are Available for Homeless Children

Once identified, school districts are required to provide services and supports to homeless children.

Examples of these supports include:

  • immediate eligibility for free school meals
  • fees waived for school activities, including registration fees and extracurricular activities
  • school supplies, uniforms, and other necessary materials provided to the child
  • transportation to and from school of origin (the school the child was attending before he became homeless)
  • academic supports to ensure success, including tutoring

These are just a few supports that could be needed. The liaison is required to coordinate with community agencies to fully support the child. Click here for a full explanation of the Act and the requirements of local school districts.

School districts are allowed to use federal Title I, Part A funds for certain supports. Districts can apply for competitive grants on a yearly basis. Forty-two of Alabama’s 134 school districts received $931,000 in grants to serve children in their districts in FY13. To date, forty-one of Alabama’s 135 school districts have applied for and been granted $965,900 to serve children for the FY14 school year.

Hoover City Schools has not received any grant money to serve homeless children in their district.

The Case at Hand

Which brings us to the case at hand: Allen and Shaw v. Hoover City Schools. Each of the plaintiffs are young men who played football for the Hoover High Buccaneers. Each claim that adults, including their coaches, knew they were homeless, yet the students were never made aware of their rights under the Act. Neither ever met the district’s homeless liaison. Each graduated from Hoover High School in 2009. While the plaintiffs know each other, the circumstances by which each became homeless and the dates of their homelessness differ.

Plaintiffs allege that employees of Hoover City Schools knew that each of the young men lived in a hotel and, in fact, demanded receipts from the hotel to prove each still lived at the hotel on a regular basis. One plaintiff recalled being called out of class on multiple occasions to deliver receipts to school officials. Based on language in the Act, each of the young men, by virtue of living in the hotel, clearly met the definition of homeless. If either had been properly identified, receipts would not have been necessary.

Each plaintiff was required to complete an in-district transfer form in order to remain at Hoover High School because district officials claimed that the hotel was located within the Spain Park High School zone. Yet according to the Act, when a child becomes homeless, he is allowed to stay in the school in which he was enrolled regardless of where the temporary shelter or living quarters are located and transfer forms are not necessary.

The Act requires transportation arrangements be made to get the student back and forth to school. District officials did not offer transportation for either plaintiff.

One of the plaintiffs was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Hoover High. In his deposition, he states that after becoming homeless, it was difficult to maintain his grades. The student was eventually required to choose between the IB program and playing football. It is difficult to imagine a student who could actually make that choice, given the duress he and his mother were facing, living in a one-room hotel room on Highway 31 in Hoover. The Act requires the district homeless liaison (who neither ever met) to coordinate academic support for homeless students. None was provided by the district.

These are just a few of the facts contained in the filings and depositions. This is extremely confounding to those of us who understand how critical supports for homeless children are in the face of the incredible stress of losing their home through no fault of their own.

I am working to obtain transcripts of the January 15 hearing and will report more details when transcripts are received.

Why This Case Is So Important

Lawsuits involving McKinney-Vento Act violations are rarely filed, and when they are, they rarely make it this far. They are typically settled out of court.

Plaintiffs’ demand for a jury trial and Judge Proctor’s decisions allowing forward movement, have put this case into uncharted territory. School districts wavering in their support of homeless children will look to any decision made in court as guidance on how compliant they must be in their communities.

Homeless children are among the most fragile in our communities. This law was enacted to provide a framework within which our public schools can be the stable force among the uncertainty that homeless children face.

I will follow this case carefully and will share more details as they are made available.

UPDATE: July 12, 2014, The parties agreed to mediation. The results of that mediation have not been made public. I requested an official statement from Hoover City Schools Communications Director Jason Gaston on May 3, 2014, but have received no response to date. I sent a second request today. 

For Further Knowledge:

“Homeless Students a Growing Problem for Schools,” National Public Radio, November 18, 2013. Larissa Dickinson, a social worker in Mobile County Public Schools, shares information on how her district works to identify homeless students and provide the services the children need.

National Center for Homeless Education. Data Collections.

National Center for Homeless Education. Homeless Education Issue Briefs.

National Center for Homeless Education Toolkit, 2013 Edition.