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Policy dispute arises in school assignment case
September 22, 2012, 05:00 AM By Heather Murtagh Daily Journal Staff

While a discrimination investigation against the San Mateo Union High School District continues, one civil rights attorney is calling for changes in the local policy for enrollment. However, district officials say it is already doing what is being asked.

In February, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating a claim that the district discriminated against certain students when it came to school assignments. As of Friday, a representative for the department said the case was still being investigated.

This week, Jenny Huang of Justice First, a civil rights attorney advocating for students in the case, sent a letter to Superintendent Scott Laurence requesting the district make changes to policies and procedures to ensure equality in school placement for all students. Kirk Black, associate superintendent of human resources and administrative services, said Justice First is simply unaware of the district’s practices. He added the requested training, forms and access to translators are already part of the district procedures.

In a Sept. 20 letter, Huang wrote "It has come to our attention that there are several discrepancies between the school district’s stated policies regarding residency requirements for school enrollment and the actual practices implemented by the administrative staff at the office of attendance and welfare.”

She went on to allege the district wasn’t following its own policies nor complying with state and federal law regarding shared residency arrangements. As a result, Huang requested additional training for the staff in the attendance and welfare office regarding: required documentation to prove residency; the purpose of the caregiver affidavit and shared residence forms; the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in term of the protection it gives students who are temporarily living with others; and proper questioning regarding a student’s living arrangements. In addition, she requested interpreters be made available.

Black, on the other hand, wrote that staff is properly trained, requested forms are available in multiple languages both online and at the district office, and Spanish and Chinese speaking staff are available to help.

"We care about our students and parents. We have always welcomed discussion and dialogue with parents, students and community members. Our mission is to provide the best service to all students and families within the district,” Black wrote in an email.

While details of the February complaint are sparse, the allegation is that "the San Mateo Union High School District discriminates against students of Chinese descent in enrollment, by holding them to different standards — for demonstrating residency or guardianship — than students of other races or national origins,” according to the U.S. Department of Education spokesman.

Those who have met the families who lodged the complaint explained it stems from students who live in Millbrae and had hoped to attend Mills High School. Instead, students were sent to Capuchino High School in San Bruno.

The school assignment policy generally calls for students to attend the school of residency. Students living in Millbrae and those who went through the Millbrae Elementary School District, for example, are most often assigned to attend Mills. There are exceptions to that, however, Black said previously.

For instance, students may have requested and been approved for a transfer, have a sibling or senior privilege for a school outside of their normal assignment, to be part of a program like English language development or special programs that are not available at all schools, or may be transferred to make up units. School capacity issues can also play into assignment, he said.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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