FORT PAYNE, AL. – The Fort Payne City (Alabama) School District issued a statement Tuesday denying recent allegations of discrimination made against it by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Earlier this month, the SPLC issued a news release stating a delay in the District’s initial enrollment of a 17-year-old Latino student was impermissibly based upon the student’s national origin.
The student, J.T., is now enrolled with Fort Payne City Schools. Superintendent Jim Cunningham says 217 of Fort Payne's High School's 797 students are Hispanic.
The District’s statement is corroborated in an editorial of the DeKalb County Times-Journal highly critical of SPLC’s recent tactics in regard to the District. The Times-Journal characterized SPLC’s allegations of discrimination as puzzling and disappointing. The paper further wrote that “if there is one thing that’s regrettable about all of this - other than the lost education time for J.T. – it’s the tactics of the SPLC. A group that could do so much good has wasted good will in Fort Payne by busting into the school system like a bull in a china shop. Rather than trying to resolve this matter with diplomacy the group went to work with press releases and tried to get J.T enrolled at the point of a publicity bayonet.”
Cunningham said the Fort Payne City School District was pleased to enroll J.T. as soon as he subsequently satisfied the District’s enrollment requirements. "The District absolutely and unequivocally does not utilize an individual’s national origin in making its enrollment decisions," Cunningham said.
Superintendent Cunningham further explained that “at the time of J.T.’s initial application, the District‘s enrollment requirements applicable to an individual past the mandatory age of public school attendance, had not been satisfied by J.T. and his family. As soon as these enrollment requirements were later satisfied, the Fort Payne City School District acted with haste to facilitate J.T.’s enrollment as it would do with any student seeking enrollment.”
In responding to an unrelated criticism by SLPC to the District’s practice of requesting a student’s social security number when available, the Superintendent clarified that the District’s enrollment application has always provided that enrollment will not be denied to students classified as Homeless, Limited English Proficient, Immigrant, or Migrant due to the absence of documents such as a social security card. Yet, in order to make this point absolutely clear, the District voluntarily added a statement to its current enrollment application verifying that “the disclosure of a social security number is voluntary; it will be used for confidential student identification. If you choose not to provide the Social Security Number, student enrollment will not be denied.”
Superintendent Cunningham specifically verified that it was not the allegations of the SLPC that facilitated J.T.’s enrollment. Instead, J.T.’s enrollment was approved because he subsequently came forward with documentation satisfying the District’s enrollment requirements. The requirements were in no way waived or altered due to SLPC’s involvement. Cunningham added that “SLPC’s tactics and allegations in this matter were false and disappointing. I certainly echo the opinion of the Times Journal that due to SLPC’s recent actions towards the District coming to light, most people will now unfortunately just roll their eyes the next time they hear of this group."
WHNT News 19 contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to ask for a response to the school system's statement.
"I think the demand letter we sent to the school system speaks for itself," said Jerri Katzerman, the SPLC's Deputy Legal Director. "We're glad the school system has acted responsibly. Our client is in school, and the policies and information on the school district's website have been revised in compliance with the law. They've updated their website, and we're very happy about the outcome. We appreciate that they acted promptly."