The largest public school district in Tennessee is under a federal civil rights investigation into bias allegations surrounding district officials' treatment of migrant children from Central America and their parents, U.S. Department of Education officials said Wednesday.
The department's Office for Civil Rights launched the investigation last week into "issues affecting English learners" as well as communications from Shelby County Schools officials with the children's parents, said spokeswoman Dorie Nolt.
The investigation comes after a complaint was filed with the department in February alleging that migrant youth fleeing violence in Central America were blocked from going to Memphis high schools. Instead, attorneys said at least a dozen students, some as young as 16, were routed to a now-defunct English program at an adult school because officials contended the teens lacked transcripts or were too old to graduate on time.
"We repeatedly expressed our concerns about the limited hours of the English program, the lack of structure and the desire of the child and families that their children (be) placed in traditional high school," reads the complaint filed by Memphis-based The Exchange Club Family Center, which alleged the district followed a "pattern and practice of denying immigrant students enrollment."
An Associated Press investigation released in May found that the Memphis district was among at least 35 districts in 14 states in which hundreds of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras had been discouraged from enrolling in schools or pressured into what advocates and attorneys argue are separate but unequal alternative programs — essentially an academic dead end, and one that can violate federal law.
Instead of enrolling the minors in high school, the cash-strapped Memphis district had routed them to English classes that met for a few hours a week. But in February, the state shut the English-language program over concerns that few students were graduating, effectively ending their chances for a formal education.
Shelby County Schools spokeswoman Natalia Powers declined comment Wednesday.
She previously said the district had a policy that allowed students 16 and older to choose to enroll in a GED program, and that once the program closed, students could continue studying in a similar program at a local nonprofit.
But attorneys and advocates said their clients weren't given the choice to attend a mainstream high school, and that the Memphis nonprofit did not teach English.
America's schools remain one of the few government institutions where migrant youth are guaranteed services, but the federal government has extended little money or oversight to monitor whether that happens, in part because schools are locally governed.
If federal investigators find that the district discriminated, the investigation could result in a resolution agreement that requires the district to change its policies. If that is not successful, then the department could withhold federal funds, take other enforcement actions, or ultimately prosecute the case. But the investigation could take years to be completed, said Nolt.