New federal guidelines designed to stop school districts from discriminating against undocumented immigrants may create a dilemma for local school officials in determining how old students are and in what grade they belong.
The U.S. Department of Education and Justice Department co-authored a letter to school districts outlining the documents they can require during the registration process. Federal officials said they've logged 17 complaints in the past three years involving school districts requiring Social Security numbers and driver's licenses from parents.
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Undocumented immigrants typically would not be able to provide such documents, leading them to be shut out of local schools.
Many suburban districts require an original birth certificate during student registration. The new guidelines allow districts to request, but not require, a birth certificate. Some area districts already have adjusted policies in recent years after finding a crop of students registering every year without birth certificates.
Palatine Township Elementary District 15 accepts foreign birth certificates and a variety of documentation for identification, such as state IDs, travel visas and passports, said Jim Garwood, deputy superintendent of schools.
"If you are undocumented, it can even be something from your home country," Garwood said. "We'll still ask for a birth certificate. I don't know how many documents there are out there that will give you a student's age. If we don't get a birth certificate within 30 days, by Illinois law, we are supposed to report that to the police."
However, he said, students are not denied admission if parents don't provide a birth certificate. "We let them know what the requirements are. If they don't provide it, we still enroll the kids," Garwood said. "We don't deny anybody an education or access to school. But it does present some difficulties and challenges as to verifying a child's real age."
The Palatine-based district educates roughly 12,500 students, of which more than 50 percent are minorities, and about 70 languages are represented in the district.
"We have a handful (of cases) every year, for whatever reason, that don't have a copy of the birth certificate," Garwood said. "We admit the child anyway, and we continue to try to get a copy of the birth certificate."
The new federal guidelines will not change the district's policies, he said. "It's certainly not going to change the number of people that show up without birth certificates," he said. "We'll still get kids in. We don't even ask what somebody's immigration status is. We wouldn't share that anyway. We are not the immigration authorities. We are here to just educate kids."
That may be the intention, but another law may be part of what fuels tension for undocumented immigrants when they are asked to produce birth certificates during school registration.
When a birth certificate isn't produced, Illinois' Missing Children Records Act requires school districts to notify the local police department. The law recognizes the inability of an adult to produce a birth certificate for a child during school registration as a red flag that the child may have been kidnapped.
Glenbard High School District 87 spokeswoman Peg Mannion said the district will await guidance from the Illinois Association of School Boards before deciding how to deal with the new federal guidelines.
Mannion said birth certificates are a valuable means for both checking against the possibility that a would-be student was abducted and ensuring the student has access to the full range of sports, activities and special education services the district can provide. Age is particularly key when it comes to special education because local schools are expected to provide service for a student until age 22.
Districts with even larger immigrant populations, such as Elgin Area School District U-46 and Round Lake Area Unit District 116, agree citizenship isn't a factor in registering for school, but establishing residency in the district is a concern.
U-46 officials have parents obtain an affidavit explaining why they can't provide a birth certificate, if one isn't available. District 116, where Latinos constitute 71 percent of the student population, asks for a number of documents, from phone bills to birth certificates, to ensure the student qualifies for a seat in a classroom and is old enough to be there.
"Our policy allows students to enroll immediately and provides latitude for families to submit the required documentation within a reasonable amount of time following their registration," said Bill Johnston, Round Lake Area Unit District 116 assistant superintendent of business and operations. "In the event that a family was unable to submit a birth certificate, the district would work with them to complete the registration process. This could include accepting another form of age certification."
The new federal guidelines indicate hospital records, a doctor's note or even an entry in a family bible may be acceptable as proof to establish a child's age.
But lack of citizenship isn't the only reason some adults can't or won't produce a birth certificate for school officials.
Don Schlomann, superintendent of St. Charles Unit District 303, said it's not unheard of for schools to encounter parents and/or students trying to work the system to gain an unfair educational advantage.
"We see things like 20-year-old kids trying to come back to school so they can play basketball and get a college scholarship," Schlomann said. "On the other end of the spectrum, you get parents wanting to accelerate their kid by enrolling them before they are old enough to be in school. So that's why we require a birth certificate."
Schlomann said he expects the district will still at least ask for a birth certificate during registration because it's the easiest method to determine age.
Right now, the district will enroll a student and give parents 30 days to produce a birth certificate before removing a student from school if the document isn't provided.
Schlomann said he's not yet sure what measures his staff will use to verify age under the new federal guidelines if parents don't provide a birth certificate.
"When a student comes in, and they look like they're a third-grader, and the parents say it's a third-grader, that's not the problem," Schlomann said.
The problem will be the guy who comes in and tells us he's a high school senior but he looks like he's been shaving for about eight years. Those are the ones I'm worried about."