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Schools must provide equal access to public education to all students, regardless of immigration status

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  Attorney General Maura Healey recently issued an advisory reminding school officials across Massachusetts of their obligations under state and federal law to provide all elementary and secondary students with equal access to public education, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. The advisory updates previous guidance that Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office issued as a reminder that state and federal law requires educational agencies and local school districts to provide all school-aged children with equal access to public education – irrespective of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or immigration status.

  “Schools play a critical role in the development of young people and all children deserve the opportunity to learn and thrive in a safe and supportive environment,” said Healey. “We are issuing this advisory to remind public school administrators of their obligation to open their doors to all students – including and especially our most vulnerable.”

  “We are thrilled to see the Attorney General issue this updated guidance on equal access to public education regardless of immigration status,” said Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) Executive Director Elizabeth Sweet. “In Massachusetts, there are approximately 15,000 undocumented school-aged children and youth. These children and youth deserve the opportunity – like all children and youth – to grow in all the ways that school makes possible: academically, socially, emotionally.”

  “We are grateful for the Attorney General’s leadership in ensuring that every child has access to public education,” said Lawyers for Civil Rights Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal. “It is critically important to remind school districts about their duty – and legal obligation – to educate every child regardless of their identity or background.”

  “The Brazilian Women’s Group is happy to see this advisory sent out,” said Brazilian Women’s Group Executive Director Heloisa Galvão. “It is timely, needed, and fair. Children belong in school no matter what. Education is liberating and gives children the sense of belonging they need to grow up to be empowered citizens. We congratulate the Office of Attorney General Maura Healey and hope this notice ends, once and for all, school registration delays.”

  The Attorney General’s new advisory reminds Massachusetts school districts and officials that enrollment practices that single out students based on their actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status violate state and federal law. Furthermore, equal access to public education means not only the right to enroll in school, but also the right to an education free from unlawful discrimination and harassment. The Attorney General’s Office points to existing state and federal laws that protect the rights of immigrant students, including:

  • The Massachusetts Student Anti-Discrimination Act, which states that no person may be excluded from a public school in any town or discriminated against by a school district on the basis of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.
  • The Massachusetts Anti-Bullying Law prohibits bullying by students or faculty on school grounds or at school activities.
  • Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin by public elementary and secondary schools.
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
  • The Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 requires that schools provide English Language Learners with appropriate services to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation in instructional programs.
  • The Plyler v. Doe Decision of 1982 held that public elementary and secondary schools may not deny any child residing in the applicable jurisdiction access to public education, whether that child is present in the country legally or not.

  School districts must also avoid drawing conclusions about a prospective student’s immigration status based on characteristics like language or national origin, or their residency based on immigration status. In cases where families are unable to provide documents to school districts to verify eligibility for enrollment, school districts should work with families to find alternative methods to establish residency or proof of age so the student can enroll in the school. For example, if a family does not have a birth certificate for a child, the district may accept an affidavit from the parent indicating the child’s date of birth.

  Within the updated advisory, the Attorney General’s Office also encourages school districts to seek out documents for additional guidance from agencies and organizations like the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. These agencies have provided materials like a resource guide on how to support undocumented youths, and how to welcome newcomer and refugee students and families.

  The Attorney General’s Office is committed to securing the civil rights of all students in Massachusetts. If you have questions about this guidance or other civil rights concerns, you may file a complaint with its Civil Rights Division online or at 617-963-2917.

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