Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Resolution in Landmark Lawsuit Will Benefit Thousands of Hawaii Children

HONOLULU – U.S. District Court Chief Judge Helen Gillmor today
approved a settlement agreement in a case brought by a statewide class
of homeless children and their parents against the Hawaii Department of
Education and Board of Education. The settlement requires the State to
provide homeless children with equal access to public education and
remove barriers to their educational success.

Alice Greenwood, a homeless advocate and named Plaintiff, said, "All I
ever wanted was for my son to have the same education as everyone else.
I hope things will be better now." Olive Kaleuati, also a named
Plaintiff, agreed: "Its been a long road, but I'm glad we've finally
reached an agreement. Hopefully DOE will do its part so that all
homeless children will benefit."

Despite receiving federal monies under the McKinney-Vento Homeless
Assistance Act for many years, the Board and DOE had rules, policies,
and paperwork that made it extremely difficult for homeless children to
receive the same level of education as non-homeless children. The
lawsuit charged that Hawaii schools have forced homeless children to
change schools multiple times in a single year, denied them the ability
to enroll, and refused to allow them access to the safe school
transportation services enjoyed by non-homeless students.

The lawsuit, Kaleuati v. Tonda, was filed in federal district court in October 2007 by Lawyers for
Equal Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation,
and the law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing. After a series of
victories by the Plaintiffs, the Board and DOE chose to settle the case
when faced with additional court hearings.

One of the biggest barriers for homeless children has been the lack of
transportation to and from school. In the settlement agreement, the DOE
and Board agreed to take the long-needed step of running additional
school buses on the Leeward Coast, the highest density homeless area in
the State. Where school buses are not available, the DOE will also
offer mileage reimbursement for those parents who wish to drive their
children to school, supply bus passes for children (and an adult or
guardian when the student is too young to travel alone), and/or modify
existing school bus routes to pick up homeless children.

Under additional provisions of the settlement, the DOE shall:

* Hire additional homeless liaisons on each island to assist homeless families in navigating the public school system;

* Inform homeless children and families of their rights under the
McKinney-Vento Act (most notably, a child's right to remain in her or
his current school -- and receive transportation to that school -- even
if the family moves outside of the school district insearch of shelter);

* Conduct yearly trainings of school personnel, and make annual site visits to schools and homeless shelters statewide;

* Modify its enrollment forms and computer systems to facilitate
the enrollment process and improve attendance for homeless children; and

* Take affirmative steps to avoid stigmatizing homeless families.

William Durham of Lawyers for Equal Justice described the agreement as
a big step forward. "We are very happy the State Defendants finally
decided to do the right thing for these children. Under this agreement,
we shouldn't hear any more stories of children being forced,
repeatedly, to change schools, or of children waking up at four in the
morning just to get to school on time."

"We hope that the gaps have been filled and that the thousands of
children will finally have access to the educational foundation they
need to succeed in the futrure," said Daniel Gluck, ACLU Senior Staff
Attorney. "These changes are long overdue."

Paul Alston, of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, said: "The fact that it
took a lawsuit and nearly nine months in court to resolve this matter
is shameful. The DOE's obligations were clear and the violations were
indisputable. This is yet another unfortunate example of the wide gap
between the State's rhetoric about improving education and the reality
that the administration cannot be trusted to do the right thing for
children -- especially poor ones."

Under federal law, a child is considered "homeless" if she lacks a
"fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This includes
children living at shelters (including domestic violence shelters), in
parks, at the beach, and in cars. It also includes the "hidden
homeless:" the estimated 20,000 children in Hawaii who live "doubled
up" with friends or family because their families cannot afford a place
of their own.

Olive Kaleuati discribed how her two sons, also named Plaintiffs in the
case, were proud of what they had done for Hawaii's homeless children:
"It hasn't really hit them, how big a deal it is that they've
accomplished so much at their age. But I told them what happened, and
they said, 'We just helped all the homeless kids go to school now.'"

For questions about services available to homeless children and their
families under the settlement or the McKinney-Vento Act, please contact
Judy Tonda, the Statewide Homeless Concerns Resource Teacher, at (808)
394-1394 or (866) 927-9095 (toll free from the neighbor islands).

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