WASHINGTON – A federal judge granted class status this week to a group of homeless students and parents who sued the Montgomery County school system, claiming it violated a federal law designed to provide homeless students with equal educational opportunities.
U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow’s decision allows the plaintiffs in the case to stand for all homeless parents and children who live in or will live in Montgomery County, opening the county to further claims against it.
But Judith Bresler, who represented the board in the case, said that the judge’s decision only mandated that the county do what was already doing.
“They were always not going to make changes for five people – they were going to be made countywide,” she said.
The 16 plaintiffs in the case charged that the school board violated McKinney-Vento Act requirements for defining homeless children and ensuring their educational rights and choice of schools.
The 1987 law, which was reauthorized in July, requires school districts to let children stay at their original schools while they are homeless and to provide the necessary transportation for the children to do so.
Bresler said that since the case was filed in May, the board has been working to adapt to the most recent version of the McKinney-Vento act.
“There was a lot of misunderstanding (by families) about what was being done and what was not being done,” she said, adding that all parties are now working with a settlement judge to resolve the issue.
The board had argued to Chasanow that the parents and children who sued them were too small a group to qualify for class status, that they did not share all of the same complaints and that some of the parents were not homeless.
But Chasanow ruled Monday that “the size of the class consists of at least several hundred individuals.”
She also said that even though the specific facts of each student’s case varied, they all faced the same legal issues, including the board’s failure to identify homeless students, to inform them of their rights and to provide transportation.
As to the claim that two of the parents were not actuually homeless, Chasanow said that the board had failed “to make reference to or discuss the definition of “homeless” used in the McKinney-Vento Act.”
Chasanow said the class definition covers all homeless children — including those living in transitional housing — over age 3 living in Montgomery County. It reaches back to Nov. 1, 2000, and includes homeless children who may live in the county in the future.
Neither the plaintiffs nor their attorneys could be reached for comment Friday.