Separate schools for Katrina students?

Texas officials want to waive federal rules that prevent schools from segregating homeless students. But advocates and others are crying foul.

Published September 19, 2005 9:15PM (EDT)

It started with a can of Sprite. Last week, a local student at Jesse H. Jones High School in Houston threw his soft drink at some of the new kids, those recently enrolled teenagers who had fled Hurricane Katrina. The students from New Orleans fought back, sparking a schoolyard brawl that sent three students to the hospital for facial and rib injuries. By the time the dust-up cleared, police had arrested five students, three from Houston and two from New Orleans.

The fight was the exception, not the rule. Over the past two weeks, Texas education officials have enrolled more than 40,000 displaced students, almost all of them from the New Orleans region. New teachers have been hired, new textbooks ordered and entire school buildings taken out of mothballs. Like other states, Texas has integrated the Katrina victims into its schools, following strict federal guidelines that bar local school districts from educating homeless students separately from the general population or stigmatizing them with special identification cards or wristbands.

But on Capitol Hill, the Jones High School fight has been used to justify an effort by the Department of Education and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to waive those federal rules. The sheer number of evacuated students needing new schools, say advocates of the change, has turned the federal homeless statute into little more than burdensome red tape. On Monday, Hutchison introduced a bill with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to allow school districts across the country to open separate schools for hurricane victims. The bill would take away the ability of evacuating parents to protest their children's placement in particular schools. It would also allow schools to issue "identification cards or other identifying insignia" for students affected by Hurricane Katrina. "Our top priority is keeping the kids from Louisiana in an environment that is safe, secure and familiar," said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for Hutchison, who argues that in some cases evacuees might be better served by going to schools with other evacuees. "This is only a temporary waiver for the remainder of the school year."

But advocates for the homeless fear the waiver would relegate evacuated students to second-class status. "It basically allows schools to discriminate pretty broadly against kids who are homeless as a result of the storm," says Barbara Duffield, an advocate for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. The waiver would suspend parents' right to protest their children's placement, while making it easier for students to be moved during the school year or denied transportation, Duffield said. She calls the prospects of Katrina-specific school identifications "absolutely horrifying." "It's like a scarlet letter K or something," she says.

Others in the Senate have already announced their intention to fight the proposal. "We shouldn't be segregating children who have just gone through such a traumatic experience," said Alex Glass, a spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Calls to waive the federal rules protecting homeless students began shortly after the evacuation of New Orleans. On Sept. 8, the top educator in Texas, Shirley J. Neeley, wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education asking for some legal "flexibility" in applying the McKinney-Vento Act, a law that requires equal treatment for homeless students. Among the concerns, wrote Neeley, was the broad powers the law gave parents of homeless students to choose their children's school. "It is not practical to permit parents or guardians to select the campus a child will attend," Neeley wrote.

At around the same time, Utah officials sought permission to begin educating about 90 evacuated students at Camp Williams, a National Guard base south of Salt Lake City. "We needed to keep those children as close to their parents as possible," said Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate who was asked by Utah's governor to help coordinate the program. The program is now winding down, she added, since there are only 20 students left on the base. "We said right from the beginning that Camp Williams was only temporary."

After researching the law, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings decided that she did not have the power to waive the requirements herself. She has asked Congress to grant her new authority to help place the 372,000 students from Mississippi and Louisiana that the department estimates have been displaced by the storm. "The point is to get these kids into some kind of normalcy across the board," said Chad Colby, a spokesman for Spellings, who added that Mississippi has also requested waivers. "In a unique situation like this, which McKinney-Vento was not written to address, the secretary thinks she needs the authority."

The Hutchison bill goes further by specifically allowing exemptions to the portions of McKinney-Vento that prohibit school officials from doing anything that would "stigmatize" homeless students, like issuing identification badges. The provision is targeted at younger students, said Paulitz, Sen. Hutchison's spokesman. "It would be an easy way for teachers and bus drivers to be able to bring them back to a specific shelter," he said, adding that he knows of no schools in Texas that have begun issuing badges or wristbands to homeless schoolchildren.

There are definitely no badges in Houston, where officials say they have been working to make evacuated students feel as comfortable as possible. But the district will face a problem if Congress does not approve a waiver. The district has opened up two elementary schools, Douglass and Ryan Elementary, simply to handle the evacuee overflow. Under the current law, a temporary school just for homeless students is allowed in response to an emergency. But unless Congress acts, they will eventually have to be integrated with local students.

Houston school board member Arthur Gaines says he does not expect the integration to be a problem. "They are our students," Gaines said of the 4,000 young evacuees who have arrived in the district in recent weeks. The recent fight at Jones High School was just an aberration. "It was an incident," he said. "I am quick to want to isolate it."

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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