Thank you to Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP for updating the below content with North Carolina information.
14.1 – Overview
Federal law provides protections for students who are homeless or displaced as the result of natural disasters (see 42 U.S.C. § 11434a). The federal McKinney-Vento Act defines ‘homelessness’ as it applies to public school students in pre-Kindergarten through the 12th grade (see id. § 11434a(2)). Under this law, the definition of ‘homelessness’ includes children and youth who do not have a regular and adequate nighttime residence and specifically applies to children and youth residing in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, trailer parks, hotels, motels, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, and staying with friends or family temporarily as a result of economic hardship, loss of housing, and natural disasters (see id. § 11434a(2)(A)-(B)). Families and youth living with others on a temporary basis and unable to return to their homes because of a disaster would even be considered homeless under the Act (see id. § 11434a(2)(B)).
14.2 – Summary of the Law
14.2.1 – Homeless/Displaced Students Are Entitled to Immediate Enrollment
McKinney-Vento guarantees the right of homeless students to enroll immediately in the public school which serves the attendance area where the student is staying temporarily (see id. § 11432(e)(3)(E)(i)(II)). Additionally, North Carolina General Statutes Annotated § 115C-366(a2) allows homeless students to enroll in any school district in North Carolina regardless of where they are living temporarily.
14.2.2 – Homeless/Displaced Students Can Enroll Without Documentation
Students displaced as a result of a natural disaster are entitled to immediate enrollment in public school even if they don’t have the documentation typically required for school registration, like proof of residency, birth certificates, immunization and health records, etc. (see 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(3)(C)(i)-(ii)). In fact, enrolling schools are required to help students obtain these important documents (see id. § 11432(g)(3)(C)(ii)-(iii)). English Language Learners (ELLs) who enroll without documentation from their previous school should be provided protections that allow access to appropriate programming (see id. § 11432(g)(4)(B)). Conversations with parents and the students and review of documentation within their possession will assist in this inquiry.
14.2.3 – Homeless/Displaced students are entitled to additional protections
First, under the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless students are specifically eligible for free school meals without delay (see id. § 11432(e)(3)(C)(i)(III)(cc)). Second, homeless students have the right to go back to their “school of origin” (the school they attended before the disaster) and the school district must generally provide transportation to and from their “school of origin” if a parent or guardian makes a request (see id. § 11432(g)(1)(J)(iii)). Students who enroll in a new school district as a result of displacement by a natural disaster must receive transportation services that are comparable to the transportation services that other regularly housed students receive (see id. § 11432(g)(4)(A)). Next, school districts must assess the needs of homeless students and refer those students and their families to appropriate local resources, including health, mental health, dental, and other community-based supports and services (see id. § 11432(g)(6)(A)(iv)). Third, homeless students are entitled to fully participate in any school and extracurricular activities (see id. § 11432(g)(1)(F)(iii)). Finally, if a receiving school does not agree that a homeless student is eligible to attend that school, the student has the right to remain enrolled pending any appeals, to receive a written explanation of the reasons for the district’s objections to enrollment, and to receive assistance from the district’s homeless liaison to dispute the school’s decision regarding school selection and enrollment (see id. § 11432(g)(3)(E)).
14.2.4 – Every school district is required to designate a Homeless Liaison
Every school district in North Carolina is required to have a homeless liaison who is responsible for coordinating efforts to assist and support homeless students (see id. § 11432(g)(1)(J)(ii)). The North Carolina Homeless Education Program (NCHEP) maintains a current directory of these liaisons: https://hepnc.uncg.edu/local-liaisons/. The North Carolina Homeless Education Program (NCHEP) also maintains a general contact number: (1-336-315-7400).
14.2.5 – Special Education
Homeless status is exclusive of special education identification, thus special education programming follows the student to any school in which he or she enrolls (see 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(4)(B)). Parents who are forced to enroll a student with a disability in a different district because of displacement due to a disaster are entitled to the same and comparable services as previously received (see id.).
A parent should disclose that his or her child was previously receiving special education services upon enrollment, to ensure expedited special education services (see National Association of School Psychologists, Natural Disasters and Relocated Students With Special Needs, https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/natural-disaster/natural-disasters-and-relocated-students-with-special-needs). For students with disabilities who enroll with missing or incomplete special education records, school districts must ensure those students receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by using whatever information is available at the time of enrollment, including but not limited to records provided by the parent and interviews with the parent and student and conversations with the student’s medical and/or mental health providers (see 42 U.S.C. § 11432 (g)(5)(D); N.C.G.S.A. § 115C-107.1(a)(3)).
For a student who has not been identified as eligible for receiving special education services under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act) and is experiencing educational difficulties after a disaster, parents may consider identification under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (see Public Schools of North Carolina, Students with Disabilities, http://www.ncpublicschools.org/parents/disabilities/). Section 504 provides a wider definition of an individual with a disability and allows accommodations and supports within the education environment, which may be appropriate for a trauma-based diagnosis (see 29 U.S.C. § 701; Public Schools of North Carolina, Students with Disabilities, http://www.ncpublicschools.org/parents/disabilities/).