It took a court date to do it, but a small Morris County school district yesterday amended its rules for enrolling students and removed any requirements that families show they are legally documented.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey office filed a suit against the Butler school district last week for its requirement that new families provide a photo identification to enroll.
The lawsuit, the ACLU’s first against a New Jersey school district, was part of an ongoing campaign by the ACLU to hold districts to strict state and federal guidelines that prohibit such requirements. The rules aim to protect undocumented and typically immigrant families from any obstacles to receiving public education.
But as a hearing was held in state Superior Court in Morristown yesterday, the lawyer for Butler schools announced that the district’s guidelines would be amended to address the complaint, with the requirement for photo identification removed.
“Today, we agreed that if they don’t have a photo ID, we will do our best to determine from the totality of the documents that can be provided whether the family resides in Butler,” said Jeffrey Merlino, the school board’s attorney.
Merlino maintained that the district’s policy was never to exclude undocumented families, and claimed that no families had ever been prohibited from enrolling. He said the requirement had only been meant to further ensure that a family was a resident of Butler and not another community.
Other said, however, that at least some families residing in Butler had been blocked by the policy, and now they hoped that the pathway would be opened.
“We’re pleased that the Butler School District will finally change its policy to allow students to enroll without subjecting them to unlawful discrimination,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney.
“We have said from the beginning that this issue should not have required intervention from a court, as the law unambiguously forbids barriers to children getting a public education based on immigration status,” he added.
The ACLU-NJ office said it had heard from 10 families that faced the restriction in trying to enroll their children in Butler schools for the 2014-2015 school year. Others said the restriction was already blocking families.
Pastor Tom Galban of the Risen King Church in Butler said he knew of two Hispanic families that tried to enroll their children this year, but were prevented by the identification requirement.
“We had two students of age who were denied entry because they couldn’t provide necessary identification,” he said yesterday. “This is the prime reasons for their entry into this country, they came for the better lives of their children.”
But Galban, too, said he was pleased that Butler has agreed to the change. He said Butler was never suspected of being intentional in excluding families but appeared not to have a “full understanding of state and federal laws” that prohibited discrimination against undocumented residents.
“I’m happy this policy was rescinded,” Galban said. “I’m hoping it can help unify Butler. I see from today an improved Butler.”