An Atlantic City High School student has filed a complaint with the state saying he was automatically enrolled in the district’s alternative high school after his release from incarceration, even though he felt he was in danger in that neighborhood.
The student, who is not identified by name because he is a juvenile, said a close friend and a relative were both killed less than a mile from the East Campus Alternative School on North Indiana Avenue, one in 2012 and the other in April 2013. He said that since the district does not provide transportation, he believed his safety would be at risk taking public transportation to that neighborhood.
The district’s request for dismissal of the complaint with the state education commissioner was rejected. Hearings on the matter are scheduled to begin Sept. 18 before an administrative law judge in Atlantic City.
The complaint demonstrates the often delicate decisions districts must make in trying to meet their obligation to educate all students, while taking into consideration schoolwide safety issues involving the placement of students with criminal records, either in a traditional high school or an alternative program.
Attorney Matthew Sykes, who represents the student, said they are not opposing the Atlantic City district’s right to place students in the alternative school. But, he said, the decision should be based on the individual case, not on a blanket unwritten policy.
“We are not arguing that it is not the appropriate placement, but only that there should be an evaluation first,” he said. “To automatically place students in the alternative school is arbitrary and capricious.”
Atlantic City School District officials did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint.
Sykes is a founder of the South Jersey Educational Reentry Program, which is sponsored by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. The Atlantic City native began the re-entry program in March to help formerly incarcerated students complete their education.
School-age students attend classes in the juvenile justice facility while they are incarcerated and by law must be allowed to continue their education when they are released.
According to the complaint, the student was incarcerated from seventh to 10th grade, then again for another year after his sophomore year in high school before being released in February. He wants to start a new life and had earned 96.2 high school credits toward the 120 required for graduation. He had hoped to complete the remaining credits and graduate in June so he could enroll in culinary school.
Sharon Lauchaire, spokeswoman for the state Juvenile Justice Commission, said social workers assist students and school districts to make sure students enroll in school when they are released. But, she said, each district is responsible for deciding where to place them.
Jamie Moscony, principal at the Atlantic County Alternative High School in Mays Landing, said many students are placed at the school after they have been incarcerated, including a large number from Atlantic City.
She said each district has its own policies and procedures. Some students will remain at the alternative high school until they graduate, while others can return to their hometown high school if they meet set criteria.
“They do need some transition when they get out,” she said, noting it can be hard for students to go right back into a large high school after they have been in the confined juvenile justice setting.
Officials in other local school districts, including Greater Egg Harbor Regional and Middle Township, said the placement decision at their schools is made on a case-by-case basis.
The complaint against Atlantic City states that the student was told he would be assigned to the East Campus Alternative High School solely because he had served more than six months in a juvenile justice facility. But Sykes said they could find no official district policy stating that procedure.
The complaint states that after the student repeatedly said he did not feel safe going to the East Campus, the district agreed to instead place him on home instruction. But since he did not have a phone, it proved difficult to schedule lessons, and after multiple missed visits, it was terminated by the district. The student started attending the East Campus in May to avoid violating his parole, but remained fearful there and wants to attend the regular high school.
Sykes said the student also enrolled in the Youth Advocate Program in Atlantic City, which provided a temporary part-time job, but he is having a hard time finding another job because of his background and not having a high school diploma.
“He wants to finish,” Sykes said. “The district should work with him.”
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