Like many other students at Rockville High School, “Michael” went to his last day of classes before the summer break on Friday.
Unlike the other students, Michael is a temporary resident at a Silver Spring facility for Maryland youths in the custody of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
A May 21 decision by the Maryland State Board of Education upheld Michael’s right to attend an area school and marked the latest step of a case started more than a year and a half ago.
Michael, whose name has been change to allow him anonymity, currently lives at the Hearts and Homes for Youth organization’s Harriet Tubman facility.
At issue in the state school board’s decision was whether the students at the facility fall under the state’s definition of homeless and therefore have the right under state law to attend a public school. The law says that homeless students have the choice to attend either the school they had attended when they became homeless or one near where they currently live.
The county school system has said it can better serve the youths by providing teachers and resources at the facility. The system also argued, according to the state board’s opinion, that it is not required to enroll the students at a school because the system does not think they fit the state’s legal definition of a homeless student.
The case originally arose when Jennifer Barmon — an assistant public defender in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Montgomery County office — filed a complaint in November 2012 on behalf of four special education students at the facility who were trying to attend Rockville High School.
The Maryland State Department of Education, which investigated the complaint, decided in January 2013 that Montgomery County Public Schools had violated state law in part by not allowing the students to enroll at a county school based on their status as homeless students.
Prior to the decision, the school system had an arrangement with Hearts and Homes in which it provided a few teachers and about 10 computers with access to school system programs at the Tubman facility, according to the state school board’s May 21 decision.
“We believe that providing on-site tutoring services that are tailored to the individual student for the brief time they are at Harriet Tubman is in the best educational interests of the student,” county school system spokesman Dana Tofig said in a May 29 email.
The school system believes that placing a student at a school for a short period of time — “for 10 or 15 days” — is “not educationally sound or beneficial,” Tofig said.
After the state education department’s decision, the school system filed with the Maryland school board a petition for declaratory ruling that spurred the board’s May opinion.
According to the opinion, the school system argued that the students at the Tubman facility are residents of a detention facility, and therefore do not fall under the state’s definition for homeless students.
The state school board, however, disagreed.
Based on state law, the board’s May opinion said, the facility rather serves as a short-term shelter and does so in “physically unrestricting facilities.”
“The elements of physical restriction, heightened security, and protection of the community that are all central to the concept of ‘detention’ are absent,” the opinion says.
The Tubman facility serves as an alternative to a detention facility for the youths from around Maryland who a judge decides do not need to be detained, said Chloe Perez, an administrator for Hearts and Homes. The facility offers counseling, independent living skills training, recreation, education and “a home-like atmosphere,” she said.
Perez said the organization believes that, regardless of how long a student can attend a school, they still have the right to do so and find value in the time they spend there.
“They want to get out and socialize,” she said. “They want to be among friends.”
Perez said, in the previous arrangement with the school system, the students received basic academic instruction but didn’t get to enjoy extracurricular activities or electives.
“That was part of the reason we were really advocating for them to attend school,” she said.
In her reply statement to the school system’s petition, Barmon described her experience interviewing facility residents in spring 2013 who all wanted to go to school.
One student, Barmon said in her reply, was able to attend several honors classes.
“He stated that he really appreciated the time he was at the high school and that, even though it was challenging for him to enter a class mid-semester, he learned a lot and met many positive people,” she said in the reply.
Michael said that his time at the end of Rockville High’s school year didn’t involve much instruction, but that he was able to participate in the exam review and especially enjoyed the activities related to his favorite topics — chemistry and biology. He said that he made several close friends.
Though he was only able to spend about two and half weeks in class, Michael said he was grateful for the chance to attend the school rather than learn at the facility.
His time at school was the only time of the day, he said, when he was “out in the free world” without “major supervision.”
“Home-schooling is pretty much a way to keep yourself introverted from society,” he said. “I like being around people as much as possible besides the faces I see every day when I wake up.”