Schools ruled lax in aid to homeless
Hawaii public schools welcome a federal judge's order to improve how they enroll, track and transport homeless children, a Department of Education official said yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor, in an oral ruling Monday, sided with three homeless families who sued the state for allegedly failing to provide them an adequate education as required under federal law.
Gillmor is expected to issue a written order instructing the Education Department to fix an enrollment system that currently accounts for just 300 of an estimated 2,000 homeless schoolchildren statewide, said Lawyers for Equal Justice attorney William Durham, who filed the suit with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Assistant Superintendent Daniel Hamada acknowledged flaws in identifying homeless students, who numbered 900 by the end of the last school year, according to state data.
Hamada said staff members contact parents who lack a home address or list a homeless or transitional shelter when registering to check if they need help. But that process, he noted, misses parents who are reluctant to admit they are homeless and use the address of a friend or relative where they might be staying.
"Certainly, we want to do a better job in identifying the hidden homeless," Hamada said. "We are looking at the enrollment form" to make it more user-friendly for all parents.
Education officials said registrars don't ask parents if they are homeless.
"We don't want to embarrass anybody," Judy Tonda, the Education Department's Homeless Concerns resource teacher, said in court.
In her decision, Gillmor also granted class-action status to the lawsuit, meaning it would affect all eligible children, Durham said.
"The judge feels these are serious issues that are urgent," he said. "Even if your home life is unstable, your school life shouldn't be."
The lawsuit argues the state violated the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which gives Hawaii about $200,000 a year in federal grants for homeless programs. The act requires schools to offer adequate transportation for homeless students, and allows children whose families are displaced by homelessness to enroll in the campus they were attending before, even if they move outside the district.
The Education Department informs homeless families about their rights through posters displayed at schools. But officials said they are only in English and the department does not send copies to all parents.
Olive Kaleuati, one of the plaintiffs, said she was forced to pull her two sons from Leihoku Elementary after moving to a shelter by Kamaile Elementary in Waianae.
Kaleuati said she wasn't aware she could have kept her sons at Leihoku.
In the current school year, Tonda said 40 city bus passes have been given to homeless students living outside districts of schools they attend, but parents -- encouraged to accompany young children -- don't receive passes.
In that case, Tonda said, parents can transfer their child to the nearest school.
The suit contends the Education Department has been aware of the alleged shortcomings since April 2006. But Hamada claims the U.S. Department of Education said in a January 2007 letter that it was "satisfied" with Hawaii's compliance with the McKinney-Vento act.
Star-Bulletin reporter Nelson Daranciang contributed to this report.