SPLC Claims Fort Payne Schools Discriminated Against Latino Student, Supt. Responds

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FORT PAYNE, Ala. (WHNT) – The Southern Poverty Law Center is demanding Fort Payne City Schools end discriminatory enrollment practices that resulted in a Latino student being turned away from Fort Payne High School twice and missing almost a semester of school.

The SPLC says the 17-year-old student, identified as J.T., tried to enroll at Fort Payne High School on January 31 after moving to Alabama. In a letter to Superintendent Jim Cunningham, the SPLC said the student was denied enrollment without any legal justification, even after J.T.’s family met with Cunningham.

“Fort Payne school officials have stood in the way of our client getting an education simply because he was born in Mexico,” said Caren Short, SPLC staff attorney. “These discriminatory practices have already cost our client valuable class time. It must stop.”

The SPLC said the school system’s not allowing the student to enroll violates federal law that bars discrimination based on national origin, immigration status or limited English proficiency. The SPLC has instructed the district to enroll the student by April 14.

The latest census shows Fort Payne’s population is more than 20 percent Hispanic.

WHNT News 19 asked Superintendent Jim Cunningham for his response.  He issued this statement:

“Federal confidentiality laws prohibits the System from disclosing personally identifiable student information or from issuing any public response to the enrollment concern that has been presented to me. However, I can unequivocally confirm that the Fort Payne City School System in no manner utilizes or considers an individual’s national origin in its enrollment decisions. Indeed, even a cursory review of the System’s current student population, confirms the enrollment of a diverse student body.

The representative for the individual at issue has been specifically advised that he is more than welcome to immediately enroll into the System subject to the same enrollment criteria applicable to any individual such as himself that is over the age of mandatory school attendance. The individual has been requested to meet with the System this week in order to facilitate the enrollment request.”

31 comments

  • D C

    Here is an assumed point that is not answered directly in the article. Does the child live in Fort Payne? My children go there and they have to open enroll every May for the next year. They live .2 miles outside the city limits, so I have to go through open enrollment every year. They can be denied at any time and forced to a county school 30 miles away.

    If the child lives in Fort Payne, then Mr. Cunningham doesn’t have much of a choice. But if the child lives outside Fort Payne? How about going through the same processes as the rest of us.

    Of course the SPLC consists of racist, who only judge by skin color. So I don’t see them rushing to help the likes of my family anytime soon.

    • mary horder

      actually the student did have proof of residency in that school district, social security number, and birth certificate.

  • Jim

    Well I have always questioned directive that US Schools must accept someone who is in the country illegally. Its one thing if a person is here legally on a VISA but if people are here illegally then they should not receive any services provided by our cities,counties,states or country because they are here without permission hence no permission or RIGHT to receive any benefits..Go through the right channels and get benefits.

    • judith

      JT is a citizen. Just because he WAS an immigrant at 1-year-old does not mean he was an undocumented immigrant, nor does it mean he did not become a citizen.

  • jamison jones

    Jim, what about those who are here through no fault of their own? How you deal with them? i mean kids?

    • Jim

      I will say this, if the parents do not have American Citizenship then their children they bring with them are in the same boat. Its not about pity on them, its about following the rules. We cant go about changing the rules because of emotion and feeling. I feel for people being mistreated by their own govts in their home country but that in now way says hey come over here we will let you in and educate and feed your families. There is a process to follow and illegal immigrants know that and its sad but its really a financial consideration for Americans of whether we should pay for people who are not here legally to reside in our country and enjoy the priviledges that we get by being citizens and paying taxes for thoses priviledges. Its not about being harsh or unkind, its about enforcing the laws that we have in our country. We could bankrupt our country if we continually allow illegal immigration to continue.

  • Vicki

    DC & Jim, you are entitled to your own opinions– you are not entitled to your own facts.

    JT has proof of residency, immunization records, & a SSN. While born in Mexico, JT & his family are legal immigrants.

    This family would have been better off staying in Colorado. Alabama continues to live up to its unfortunate reputation. :(

    • Jim

      Vicki, I dont know anymore than what the story said about the individual. I just stated that if he was not a US citizen in my opinion we shouldn’t be required to educate the individual. We are only bankrupting our school systems by educating students who are not us citizens.. If the kid is a US citizen, no problem, and if he meets the requirements to go to school there by residency then so be it..

      • judith

        Jim, unfortuantely for your opinion, the US Supreme Court decided in the 1980’s that the children of undocumented workers are deserving of an education and cannot be discriminated against. WHUMP!

    • D C

      Due to the story being incomplete, The only facts I stated was what would happen whether or not the student lived inside the Fort Payne city limits. Please read again.

      • judith

        JT lives inside the city limits, he is a citizen, and he speaks English. Now, aside from brown skin why are we keeping him out of school?

  • Amy

    Reading that FP city schools turn away Hispanics is the funniest thing I’ve ever read on this site. My son attended last year and I’d bet a full 1/3 of the student body is Hispanic. Every paper I ever received and every poster on every wall was written in English and Spanish!

    Curious about something. Could this 17-year-old almost legal adult speak English? Did his permanent record from other schools show disciplinary problems? Just how old do young adults get before schools can turn them away?

    • judith

      Amy, my daughter attends Fort Payne City schools and what you are saying is untrue. 5% of the students are Hispanic. Virtually all posters, handouts, assignments, announcements, etc. are in ALL Engish.

      • D C

        My observations are that posters, signs, etc inside the school are in English only. But it is a fact that everything sent home for parents is in both languages. Usually, English on one side, Spanish on the other side.

      • judith

        It is simply not true that Fort Payne CITY Schools sends home any type of handouts in Spanish. My daughter attends school in Fort Payne City Schools and NOTHING comes home in Spanish.

    • judith

      Amy, perhaps you struggle with reading comprehension? 1) he translated for his parents, so, yes, he speaks English; 2) Supreme Court said regardless, he is still entitled to a free and public education.
      AND, this is racist.

    • Jim

      Jamison ref your jim crow era comments, I would think the explanation is much simpler than what you are surmising. I would think its more along the lines that the kid didnt meet residency requirements for the school system than anything else. Pushing this ingrained racism in the system is getting a little old and trite and an easy excuse for people to say when they dont get their way. Its better to get all the facts and then see what happened. I am sure we will hear more about this later on..

      • judith

        Jim, he brought proof of residency. That is all that is required. Don’t make stuff up. Get your facts straight!
        This is racism!!!!!

  • Mike

    How would any of you know if the young man is legal, had displinary problems, and all this stuff you are saying… Are you the child, his parents, or his lawyer? Didn’t think so. I currently go to Fort Payne High School and it is by NO means racist. The school is full of Hispanics and they are treated equally. Any important paperwork that is sent home has both, English and Spanish. If a student needs a paper in Spanish they can always ask for it. There has to be more to this story. Sounds like some Hispanics trying to start a lawsuit.

    • judith

      Mike, news flash, the statement “Sounds like some Hispanics trying to start a lawsuit.” is racist. Not that we would expect a child raised in Alabama to understand what is racist and what is not racist. This whole state is racist. Go to some of the gas stations along 85 and look at the bumper stickers, “IF I HAD KNOWN THEY WERE GOING TO BE THIS MUCH DAMN TROUBLE I WOULD HAVE PICKED THE COTTON MYSELF.” What passes for humor in Alabama is shameful. Also, the school would not be back-peddling if this young man were not correct. As for all these Mexican, Central American, and Hispanic youth at the high school in Fort Payne, well, enrollment is less than 5%.

  • Bo. G

    I’m a high school freshman at Fort Payne High School and I disagree with the so called racist discriminatory actions that have been trusted upon a school system such as ours. If race were an issue our high school and we didn’t admit minorities in our school the population of the student body would drop little below half if not half or more. Also if you were to believe that the student is facing these “discriminatory” acts against due to poor language skills I would oust that fire with saying this year two brothers from Spain were admitted in our system with little, if any, knowledge of the english language. So I do ask this out of respect and not hatred but please do sometimes not be so eager to label one as “racist” until you are sure that you have checked more than the written word to make your hasty everyone is a racist under this pretence accusations.

    • judith

      There is a reason that Alabama is under federal oversight for discrimination in education — and has been for decades…

    • judith

      Bo G. Fort Payne HIgh School is 70% white. That is not “half” in the math I have learned. That is over 2/3’s and almost 3/4’s. HIspanics, Mexicans, Central Americans, etc., are less that 25% or less than 1/4. That means there are more than three white students for every hispanic, Mexican, or Central American student. Now, I love Fort Payne City Schools, and I am proud and happy that my daughter attends FPCS, however, I won’t bury my head in the sand and act like I don’t know that there is racism in the schools and within the school system. Pointing out where we are not doing well and then improving what we are not doing will only serve to make us better. It is time to admit and address that our system is racist as are some of our ways of living. I know that in Fort Payne the area South of the railroad tracks is called “Little Mexico” and is not considered to be prime real estate. If that is not racist, what is it? I live in Fort Payne, I live up a hill on the North side of town. My neighbors are Hispanic. They speak Spanish. My daughter loves them. Why is this family the exception? Why are we for the most part, still segregated after all this time? Bo, grow up and open your eyes. As long as we have an area of town that is mostly Hispanic, Mexican, and Central American, and as long as we have neighborhoods that are for the most part, African American, we are acting out segregation. And don’t say people are happier with their own kind, I am certain there are plenty of people of color who would love to live in our “mostly white only” areas of town.

  • blue

    After moving to sand mountain last year, I’m glad I got out when I did. I have never seen such ignorance and racism. People are fast to get out those bibles and preach that “Jesus loves us all”, but when a person looks or speaks differently than their cultural norm, they have a hissy fit. Lets keep cherry pickin’ at those bibles why don’t we?

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