Willow School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

About a month ago, Camila Martinez got a call from her daughter’s school any parent would dread. A school staffer said her 11-year-old had been booted from Willow Elementary and that Martinez needed to pick her up immediately.

The sixth grader wasn’t being disciplined. Her family had failed to submit paperwork to verify their residency in the district, documentation that the San Ysidro School District said was required to prove Olivia was eligible to attend the school because her mother had previously reported she was homeless. Now a school staffer was telling Martinez that her daughter was no longer enrolled.

“I actually started crying,” said Martinez, who scrambled to leave her retail job to pick up her daughter.

Meanwhile, 11-year-old Olivia said she sat in the school office without snacks or activities to keep her occupied. She recalls trying to dodge other students’ questions about why she was there and later, fearing she’d never return to school with her friends.

“I was very embarrassed,” she said.

District officials’ decision to remove Olivia from school wasn’t just traumatizing for the family. It may have violated federal law.

Olivia, who eventually returned to Willow after missing five days of class, is one of hundreds of homeless students enrolled in the San Ysidro School District, which educates the region’s largest concentration of unstably housed schoolchildren. Nearly a third of students enrolled in the district are homeless.

VOSD is using pseudonyms to identify the family because of safety concerns.

Homeless students are protected by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which calls for schools to remove any barriers that could hamper homeless students’ access to education.

Yet Martinez said a school district official told her she’d failed to comply with a new requirement for at least some of San Ysidro’s homeless families that forces them to jump through additional hoops to remain enrolled.

Rather than fill out a single form at the beginning of the school year to declare her daughter’s homeless status and residency in the district as in years past, Martinez learned she’d now need to submit paperwork confirming she was homeless or receiving related assistance every 30 school days. She said she was told that her daughter had been unenrolled because the family had missed deadlines to submit it.

In a Nov. 7 meeting between Martinez and Veronica Medina, San Ysidro’s liaison for homeless families – a recording of which was obtained by Voice of San Diego – Medina told Martinez that the state had imposed new mandates and that families without a fixed address would need to share proof they are homeless.

“You have to provide something every 30 school days. It’s not only you,” Medina said in the recording made by Martinez’s older daughter. “Like I said, it’s all the families. It wasn’t like that until we got requirements from the state.”

Medina said she had spoken with about 50 homeless families without consistent addresses in recent weeks and worked with them to gather needed documentation. She also implied that the district’s proximity to the border and past cases of Tijuana families sending their children to school in San Ysidro had helped fuel increased scrutiny.

Yet the state official responsible for overseeing programs serving homeless students statewide said she was unaware of any new mandates that might have led to this change.

“There are no new requirements at the state level,” state homeless coordinator Leanne Wheeler wrote in an email to VOSD.

Wheeler did not challenge the district’s apparent decision to verify students’ residency more frequently. She said the state recommends that school districts verify students’ homelessness at least once a year and to defer to families if they identify themselves as homeless.

A recently released state audit concluded that districts across the state are likely significantly undercounting homeless students and emphasized that stigmas can keep families from revealing they are homeless. The audit suggested requesting information about all district families’ housing status at multiple points during the school year could help ensure unstably housed families don’t fall through the cracks and that the state Department of Education should step up its oversight of districts’ work with homeless students.

San Ysidro School District said in a statement that Medina’s comments about mandates to request documentation from homeless families every 30 days were focused on situations where the district has struggled to confirm families’ residency. It also says it fully complies with the McKinney-Vento Act.

But it did not say whether a new district policy took effect this school year or elaborate on the Martinez family’s case, citing federal and state laws it says bar it from commenting.

San Ysidro officials noted that state law requires that it verify that its students live in the district. It also said it occasionally requests more documentation or visits to families’ residences – which can include junkyards and vehicles – when there are questions about a student’s residency.

“In rare instances when there is reason to believe the information provided by the family is inaccurate, unreliable, or nonexistent, the district may request proof of residency on a more regular and/or monthly basis. This proof may include a visit or a declaration,” the district wrote in a statement.

The school district also said that it considers the vetting “part of the district’s ongoing responsibility to ensure that students qualify under the McKinney-Vento Act and are identified and served properly.”

This year, the district received $125,000 in federal McKinney-Vento funds – the second of three payouts in a three-year grant – to serve its homeless students after a competitive state process.

Susie Terry, a San Diego County Office of Education coordinator who advises district officials across the county on best practices and policies for dealing with homeless students, said she has reached out to San Ysidro School District to try to clarify its practices following questions from VOSD.

She has questions about the prospect of frequent verification of homeless families’ residency after their children are enrolled and San Ysidro’s process for notifying and allowing parents to make appeals before their children are dismissed from school.

A County Office of Education review of San Ysidro’s McKinney-Vento policies conducted at the district’s request last year did not raise concerns with either issue. The May 2018 audit obtained by VOSD following a public-records request did recommend the district stop requiring landlords or others who may take in homeless families to sign declarations, a requirement that Terry said could imperil those families’ housing.

San Ysidro School District said it no longer requires those declarations.

“A 30-day requirement for the family to do anything would be risky and I think I’m pretty clear about this with district liaisons that anything your district decides to do policy-wise can’t be considered as something that is creating barriers,” Terry said. “The intent of the (federal) law is to remove barriers.”

Terry noted that federal law also requires that districts provide information in writing to families when there are disputes about their homeless status or residency and provide information on how they can appeal any enrollment decisions.

The federal McKinney-Vento law also calls for schools to allow students to attend classes and receive services amid disputes, a feature Wheeler also emphasized in an email to VOSD.

Barbara Duffield, executive director of Washington D.C.-based SchoolHouse Connection, said Martinez should have had the right to fight her daughter’s dismissal before she was barred from the school.

“You can’t just unenroll and withdraw a student who is experiencing homelessness without going through the dispute process,” said Duffield, whose organization advocates for homeless children.

In Medina’s November meeting with Martinez, she said that Willow Elementary had tried and failed to send a letter to a motel the family had been staying in when the school year began and later repeatedly tried to call Martinez. She also said that the school gave the sixth grader a take-home notice that Olivia, her mother and older sister are adamant they never saw or received.

In the process, Medina said, the district extended deadlines to try to accommodate the family.

The district wrote in a statement that struggles to reach families whose residency is in question can force it to make difficult decisions.

“In the rare circumstances when families are unresponsive to submitting any documentation verifying their child qualifies as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, then under the law a student may be unenrolled until verification is provided,” the district wrote in a statement.

Yet Martinez said she didn’t receive any phone calls or messages from the school until it was too late.

Martinez said she first learned there was an issue on Oct. 31, a few days before she got the call to pick up her daughter, when school staff called Martinez and said her daughter was about to be unenrolled due to the missing paperwork. Martinez, who was set to work until 10 p.m. and again the following day, begged for an extension. She said she was told she had until noon the next day – a Friday – to submit a document from nonprofit South Bay Community Services.

Martinez said she was unable to reach her contact at South Bay Community Services and then sent her daughter to school again the following Tuesday, hoping for the best.

Medina encouraged the family to get a Post Office mailbox to receive future notifications from the district to avoid that outcome in the future.

She also told Martinez that her daughter could come back to school if she could provide a document from the county Health and Human Services Agency identifying the family as homeless. Martinez said a staffer at Willow Elementary later said her daughter could return the following week, after Veterans Day.

The following Wednesday, after the holiday, Martinez said she and her daughter picked up the county document and Willow Elementary staff allowed Olivia to return to school.

Martinez and her daughter question why the 11-year-old couldn’t remain in school while they worked out issues with the district.

“It feels to me like it should be her right to go to school, and it feels like they’re taking that away from her for no reason,” Martinez said.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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