Homeless families in Baltimore have filed a federal lawsuit against the city school system, contending that their children have been denied transportation to school and been stigmatized because they couldn't afford field trips and uniforms.
The class-action lawsuit, filed by the Public Justice Center on behalf of three homeless families in U.S. District Court, seeks an injunction against the district to stop policies and practices that hurt the already struggling families.
"These barriers are symptomatic of larger failures when it comes to identifying and serving these kids, and ensuring that they have the same opportunity to succeed as housed kids, which is what the law requires," said Monisha Cherayil, an attorney with the Public Justice Center Education Stability Project.
Among the plaintiffs is the family of a fourth-grader who receives special-education services and misses on average two days of school per week because he doesn't get transportation to and from his shelter, according to the lawsuit and his mother.
Another family contends a seventh-grader had to stay home the first week of school because he didn't have the required $150 uniform with his school's logo on it. And a third family said two siblings won't attend a field trip to a local farm Thursday because their mother was denied a waiver from the $20 fee.
The families aren't seeking monetary damages beyond what they had to pay or borrow to cover transportation and other costs.
City school officials said that in recent years the district "has increased its focus on and strengthened the services provided to homeless students." They declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.
The Public Justice Center has filed similar lawsuits against Prince George's, Baltimore, and Montgomery counties, prompting those districts to improve accommodations for homeless students.
The Baltimore City lawsuit alleges the district violated students' rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001. That law requires that "each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education … as provided to other children and youths."
Under the law, school systems must provide transportation to the same school students were attending when they became homeless, for the duration of their homelessness.
Tameka Pridget said she repeatedly requested transportation for her fourth-grader to James Mosher Elementary from the Marian House, a Northeast Baltimore shelter where she and her two sons have been living since July.
She said school officials told her Sept. 12 that the transportation request would take another seven days to process. As of Monday, she said, her son still had not received transportation.
The mother of two said she had to borrow gas money to get her 9-year-old son to school, and on time, neither of which happens regularly. She said they twice had to walk miles to his West Baltimore school when she ran out of gas.
Pridget's older son attends a school closer to the Marian House, but she said he's often late because she's not back in time to help him make the 8 a.m. bell.
"It's been really stressful," Pridget said. "I'm spending money that I don't have, borrowing money that I can't pay back. ... He asks all the time if he's going to school, and some days I don't know what to tell him because I just don't have the money."
Pridget, 30, lost her job in March, and was evicted from her home months later. She said she expects to lose her welfare benefits at the end of the month because she hasn't participated in a work program — the times conflict with when she needs to take her sons to school.
Pridget said school officials told her that her son may have to transfer schools because he's missing too many days. But she doesn't want to move him from where he's attended since 2011 and is now thriving. He has an individualized education plan, which provides him special-education services.
"He's already behind because of his disability," she said. "So to get more behind will be harder on him."
The federal law also requires that school districts review and revise "practices or policies that may act as a barrier to the enrollment, attendance, or success in school of homeless children and youth."
Cherayil said some policies, such as those requiring uniforms, have been "literally making kids wear the poverty on their sleeves."
Ariel Mason's son, who attends Baltimore Community High School, was sent home on the first day of school, and stayed home for the remainder of the week because he didn't have the proper uniform. The school gave her son a shirt and a belt, but he still didn't have the $34 pants, $60 shoes and $35 sweater that was required.
Mason, 29, said she also asked the district for help to buy uniforms for her 11-year-old daughter at Harlem Park Elementary, and her children, ages 4 and 5, who attend Mary Ann Winterling Elementary school.
"Since the day school started, I've been trying to get them help," said Mason, who has been living at the Salvation Army's Booth House since August. "They gave me a price sheet and told me to go to [school district headquarters on] North Avenue. That's not help."
She said the district also denied her request for a fee waiver for a Mary Ann Winterling Elementary field trip this week.
"We're not embarrassed by our situation, but it's hard for the little ones," Mason said. "They want to look and be like everybody else, and they can't. It hurts their self-esteem more than the big children."
According to the most recent data available, 2,837 homeless students enrolled in city schools in the 2012-2013 school year. That's a 20 percent increase from a year earlier, and more than double the number of homeless students five years ago.
This past spring, the Baltimore City school system passed its first comprehensive policy for accommodating homeless students, who are defined as children who lack a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime place of residence.
School officials said the policy would bring the system in compliance with the law.
"To our credit … we have many of the services that are required through McKinney Vento already being provided at schools," said Lara Ohanian, director of enrollment, choice and transfers for the school system. "It's just a matter of making sure that connection is made at all times."