NJ Judge Rules Minors Cannot Receive Life-Long Sentences Without Consideration of Their Youth

May 11, 2015
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Man sentenced to de facto life sentence without parole will get new sentencing hearing that factors in his maturity at the time

NEWARK – In a groundbreaking ruling in an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey case, a New Jersey judge found that people convicted of crimes as juveniles cannot be sentenced to de facto life without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes.

The case involved James Comer, who was sentenced at age 17 to serve 75 years in prison, more than 68 without parole. Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Vena in a ruling Friday, May 8, concurred with the ACLU-NJ that because Comer will be 86 years old when he first becomes eligible for a parole hearing, he had effectively been serving a life sentence. As a result of the ruling, Comer will be resentenced.

“The judge adopted the Supreme Court’s axiomatic observation that children are not just miniature adults. The unique nature of their brain chemistry requires that they be treated differently than adults,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “This ruling clearly affirms that before a court can condemn a child to die in prison, it must consider the things about youth that make these extreme sentences so ill-suited to juveniles.”

The ACLU-NJ argued that a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions proscribed courts from sentencing minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, including de facto life sentences. Consistent with these cases, Comer’s resentencing will take into account the immaturity and impetuousness that accompanies youth; his home environment at the time; the circumstances of the offense, the deficiencies of young people in handling real-world functions, such as dealing with attorneys or police officers; and the possibility of Comer’s rehabilitation.

While the judge did not share the interpretation that the Supreme Court’s rulings amounted to an absolute rejection of life sentences of minors, the judge did rule that Comer’s sentence was unconstitutional because the judge failed to factor in the hallmark factors of youth involved in his crime.

“This ruling gets New Jersey courts one step closer to the reality that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., who along with Joseph A. Pace, also of Gibbons P.C., represented Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The question isn’t whether Comer deserves to be released – the question is whether Comer and other children charged with serious crimes deserve a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as they mature.”

Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, was sentenced in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no meaningful consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder, even though they did not actually kill or intend to kill. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, one who was charged with the actual killing and the other who was an adult.

The resentencing, which has not yet been scheduled, will take place in Essex County. The State plans to appeal Judge Vena’s decision. The decision is available at: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/decisions/State%20v.%20Comer%20OPINION;%2003-01-0231%20PDF.pdf

ACLU-NJ on prosecution of Sayreville football players as juveniles

November 10, 2014
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Prosecutor is right to keep Sayreville football players in juvenile system rather than try them in adult court

ACLU of New Jersey Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom made the following statement about reports that seven Sayreville football players charged with sexual assault will be tried as juveniles:

Alexander Shalom

"The decision to prosecute the seven Sayreville High School football players as juveniles is the correct one, and we commend the Middlesex County prosecutor for making the right choice in a sexual assault case that has shocked the public conscience and roiled the community.

"The decision does not diminish the seriousness of the crimes alleged in the Sayreville case. Sexual assaults -- indeed, rapes -- such as those reported in the press should not be condoned as horseplay or trivialized under the term hazing. But asking that kids be treated like kids -- that children get access to rehabilitative services that will reduce their likelihood of recidivism -- is not the same as suggesting that they evade punishment. It is, however, recognizing that finding justice is not as simple as seeking retribution."

Civil Rights Complaint Challenges Tracking and Discipline in South Orange-Maplewood School District

October 10, 2014
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NEWARK -- Civil rights organizations filed a complaint late yesterday (PDF) with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) urging an investigation into New Jersey’s South Orange-Maplewood School District’s practices of tracking and school discipline that affect students differently based on race and disability status.

The complaint was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of New Jersey, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The groups charge the school district's tracking and discipline practices disproportionately confine students of color to lower-level classes and punish students of color and students with disabilities to a greater degree.

“These problems are all too common in school districts across the country, and the numbers in South Orange-Maplewood are particularly troubling,” said ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom. “We've been meeting with officials from South Orange-Maplewood in the hopes that they address this issue and become a partner in building a more democratic, equitable learning environment for all children.”

The complaint, brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, outlines the scope of the disparate impact wrought by the district’s policies and recommendations to remedy the inequalities in the school system. It says that the policies and practices in effect impact different populations unfairly, even if those policies have a neutral intent.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District is among the New Jersey school districts with the highest racial disparities in tracking and student discipline. While white students make up slightly less than half of the student body, 70 percent of the higher-level classes are filled by white students, while 70 percent of the lower-level classes are filled by black students.

“Researchers know two things: tracking provides no concrete benefit and even harms students, and out-of-school suspension should be treated as a last resort because of its disruptive effects on both children and the learning environment,” said Courtney Bowie, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "The small investment of time and resources for South Orange-Maplewood to overhaul these two conventions will pay off in the form of more engaged students who perform at higher levels than their peers in other schools.”

Based on the same data from the 2011-2012 school year, black students had a 15.9 percent chance of being suspended, compared to the overall suspension risk of 10.7 percent. Black students were also more than 4.5 times more likely to face out-of-school suspension than their white peers, while Hispanic students were slightly more than twice as likely to face out-of-school suspension compared to their white peers. Additionally, despite federal and state mandates requiring support and accommodation for students with disabilities, these students are more than 2.5 times as likely to face out-of-school suspension as their peers. Independent of disability status, black students have a 16.1 percent suspension rate versus white students’ rate of 2.7 percent.

The personal story of a student of color, plaintiff C.B., illustrates the effects of the disparate impact of the district’s practices and policies in the lives of individual young people. This student, an academically high-performing sophomore, met the pre-requisites for placement in Advanced Placement Calculus. Despite her stellar academic record, she was not recommended for the course she would have needed to take to qualify for AP Calculus. Her teachers had consistently placed her in the class level below the highest level without her parents’ knowledge and with no explanation. Repeatedly, when her s parents asked why her daughter was not placed in the highest level, school staff could not provide an answer.

“We hope that our action will prompt the district to replace its detrimental reliance on exclusion with methods that will improve the school climate for all children and dramatically reduce the large discipline gap along the lines of race and disability status documented in the complaint,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “Ultimately, anti-discrimination law requires the rejection of the status quo in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. All students, regardless of their race or disability status, must be afforded access to a rigorous curriculum in a safe and supportive environment. By closing the access and discipline gaps we believe the district will also make strides in closing the achievement gap.”

Among the recommendations, the complaint proposes some of the following steps for reform:

  • Replace tracking with a standard curriculum for students of all levels, with supplementary instruction for students who need it. Such reform in Rockville Center, New York, resulted in a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap.
  • Reserve out-of-school suspension for only the most extreme cases of harm, focusing instead on dealing with behavior directly. School districts that have removed suspension as a routine disciplinary measure have found greater learning outcomes among the students affected.
  • Partner with experts, community members, and the complainants to reduce the adverse impact on students.

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Wanaque Repeals Youth Curfew in Settlement with ACLU-NJ

September 10, 2014
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Wanaque Curfew

Case of teen cited for walking to Burger King compelled Wanaque Borough Council to repeal unconstitutional ordinance

NEWARK – Following a successful settlement between the ACLU-NJ and the Borough of Wanaque, the borough at its Monday night meeting repealed a restrictive ordinance that set a 10 p.m. curfew for juveniles. Under the terms of the settlement, the Passaic County borough repealed the ordinance in its entirety.

“Parents should be the ones responsible for setting curfews, not the municipal government,” said Linda Richardson, the plaintiff in the case. “I’m pleased that this misguided curfew policy is now stricken from the books. Parents in Wanaque once again have the ultimate say in deciding how late their teenagers, who are on the cusp of adulthood, can stay out and how early they can leave.”

The ACLU-NJ challenged the ordinance in March 2013 on behalf of Richardson, a Wanaque resident, and her daughter Shaina. Shaina, who was 17 at the time and attending community college, was cited by police for walking to Burger King after 10 p.m.

“The repeal of this ordinance is a victory for the constitutional rights of parents and young people alike,” said Edward Kiel, who handled the case as an attorney with the Hackensack law firm Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard. “Parents should be free to exercise their own judgment and to determine whether their children are mature enough to be outside past 10 p.m.”

Shaina had her parents’ permission to walk to Burger King, which is located across the street from her family’s mailbox. On her walk back from the fast food chain, a police officer stopped her to ask why she was outside without an adult. Her stepfather came immediately, but the officer issued a citation, which could carry a $100 fine and the potential for 15 hours of community service.

Under the Wanaque ordinance, no one under the age of 18 could be in a public location in the town between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., seven days a week, 365 days of the year. The ordinance made only a few, narrow and somewhat ambiguous exceptions, including minors travelling with parental accompaniment, in cases of emergency, for school-related functions, and to exercise First Amendment rights. The ordinance, adopted in December 2005, punished both minors and parents with a fine of $100 and 15 hours of community service for a first offense and up to $1,000 and 50 hours of community service for multiple offenses.

“The ordinance included an exemption for First Amendment expression, but without freedom of movement, it’s next to impossible to exercise those other rights,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “Fortunately, the repeal of this ordinance will mean that young people in Wanaque are free to venture outside without needing their town’s permission, whether it’s to jog in the neighborhood before school, to walk their dog, or to walk home from the house of a friend down the block after watching a late-night movie.”

The ACLU-NJ has challenged juvenile curfews in the past. In 1999, it won an injunction preventing West New York from enforcing its curfew, which prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from being in a public place from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., unless accompanied by their parent or guardian. In 2001, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court upheld the 1999 injunction and ruled that West New York’s ordinance was unconstitutional. The court also recognized there was a “strong constitutional presumption in favor of parental authority over government authority.”

ACLU-NJ Calls on New Jersey to Stop Sentencing Adolescents to Die in Prison

June 16, 2014
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Motion challenges de facto life sentence without possibility of parole for man convicted as teenager

NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ today called for the state of New Jersey to end the practice of giving what amounts to life sentences (PDF) without the possibility of parole to children who have committed crimes. The filing asked the court to reduce the sentence for James Comer, who at age 17 was sentenced to serve 75 years in prison. Because Comer will be 86, well past the average lifespan for a person in his situation, when he will be eligible for his first parole hearing, he effectively has been sentenced to die in prison.

“It’s unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison, but for untold numbers of people, this sentence is still a daily reality,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, of Gibbons P.C., who is representing Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “Certainly, not everyone who is sentenced to a prison sentence as a teenager should be released, but that’s not what we’re asking for. We’re asking that New Jersey recognize that every person sentenced for a crime committed as a child deserves a chance to show that he or she has changed and ultimately deserve to be released.”

As a result of recent United States Supreme Court decisions, courts throughout the country, including in New Jersey, can no longer sentence minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, James Comer was effectively sentenced to life in prison. Given the average American male lifespan of 77, and the even shorter lifespan of men serving time in prison, he most likely will not live to see his first parole hearing, which is scheduled to take place more than two decades past his actuarially determined life expectancy.

Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, received his sentence in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, the person who was charged with the murder and the other who was an adult at the time. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have dictated that courts cannot give juveniles the harshest jail sentences, and indeed, they mandate states give people convicted of crimes as minors a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release,” even if they never ultimately leave incarceration.

The ACLU-NJ’s motion applies three U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued over the last 10 years that, combined, transformed the legal system’s treatment of young people. Together, those three cases established that the biological and psychological differences between childhood and adulthood entitle young people to treatment in sentencing that takes into account their unique capacity for change and rehabilitation. According to dozens of studies, the vast majority of adolescents who commit antisocial acts grow out of those inclinations; only five to ten percent of troubled adolescents become chronic offenders as adults. Further, it is impossible to predict which juvenile offenders will develop into relatively stable adults.

“Courts have finally recognized what parents have known for years: adolescents are fundamentally different than adults,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “As such, the Constitution demands that they be treated differently. Whether New Jersey calls it life without parole or 75 years, the result is the same: children are being condemned to die in prison. The Constitution and common sense both demand an end to this cruel and unusual punishment.”

The motion, captioned State of New Jersey v. James Comer, was filed June 12, 2014, in Essex County Superior Court. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

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  • ACLU-NJ Statement on Successful Resolution of 7 School District Suits

    June 10, 2014
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    On June 9, 2014, a week after the ACLU-NJ filed seven lawsuits against school districts with enrollment policies that discriminated against immigrant families, all seven of those districts came into compliance with the law. The districts – Audubon, Gloucester Township and Somerdale Park in Camden County; North Brunswick, Old Bridge Township and Perth Amboy, in Middlesex County; and Galloway Township in Atlantic County – had previously required parents to present state-issued photo ID as a condition of enrollment. To enroll children in local public schools, parents need only two things: proof of a child’s age and proof of residency in the school district.

    The following statement is from Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.

    Alexander Shalom

    “A week after the ACLU-NJ filed seven lawsuits against seven school districts for discriminating against immigrant families, all seven districts have agreed to comply with constitutional and state law. These rapid settlements stand as a testament to the lack of ambiguity in the law on discrimination in school enrollment.

    All seven had websites that indicated that parents were required to present state-issued photo ID as a precondition of enrolling their child in school, which runs counter to the spirit and the letter of the law.

    Fortunately, these schools for the most part quickly acknowledged the need to change their policies. Some explained that they had never finalized changes to the regulations that were under way.

    Unfortunately, several New Jersey school districts still ask parents to present identification or erect other improper barriers before parents can enroll their children. The ACLU-NJ will contact these districts in the coming weeks and expects all New Jersey school districts to abide by state and federal law before the start of the next school year.”

    Gov. Chris Christie gets D+ in Civil Rights and Liberties from ACLU-NJ

    June 9, 2014
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    NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has given Gov. Chris Christie a D+ (PDF) for his overall record on civil liberties and civil rights during his first term in office. The ACLU-NJ examined the governor’s record in 12 issue areas and gave him his lowest grades in the areas of separation of church and state, transparency, and separation of powers.

    The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion and voting rights. The report card examines the Christie administration from January 19, 2010 when Gov. Christie was sworn into office, to January 20, 2014 when his first term ended.

    “Gov. Christie’s overall record on civil liberties and civil rights has been poor, ranging mostly from mediocre to failing,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The Christie administration’s first-term record on civil liberties will be remembered for its assaults on judicial independence and the separation of church and state, as well as for its disdain for transparency. Some of Governor Christie’s most frustrating civil liberties moments have been those instances where he has failed to back up bold words with substantive actions, such as in the areas of LGBT rights and the failed war on drugs.”

    The first-term report card graded the governor on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties issues: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice. This report card expanded on the categories of the ACLU-NJ’s 2012 interim report card, which graded him in eight categories.

    “The real concern here is not what these grades mean for Gov. Christie and his administration, but what they’ve meant for everyday New Jerseyans,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “From loving couples seeking to get married, to sick patients in need of medical marijuana, to poor New Jerseyans struggling to find an affordable place to live, many of us have not had a friend in the Governor’s office. While there still remains time to improve, as of now, this administration’s legacy on civil rights and liberties is not a proud one.”

    Christie’s highest grade came in the area of freedom of religion, the category in which he also earned his highest marks in the ACLU-NJ’s interim report card. Christie deservedly received praise for supporting a developer’s decision to construct a mosque and Muslim community center near the World Trade Center during the height of the controversy in 2011. Soon after, Christie garnered national attention for excoriating a faction that railed against the appointment of a Muslim lawyer to serve as a Superior Court judge.

    Christie’s appreciation for freedom of religion swung too far in the other direction when it came down to state involvement in religion. In the category of separation of church and state, Christie received the lowest score – an F. Especially damning was his administration’s decision to give away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions: Beth Medrash Govoha, a school that trains Orthodox rabbis, and Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains Christian clergy.

    The ACLU-NJ recognized his administration’s support for voting rights, especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, with a B-. In transparency, separation of powers and economic justice, Christie earned solid Fs for his abysmal record on all three issues across the board. The Bridgegate scandal exposed how frequently the administration attempted to keep government business out of the public eye, but it hardly stands in isolation.

    Christie’s protracted fight against marriage equality, which ended only when it became clear that he would lose, cast a long shadow over some of his gestures of good will toward the LGBT community, resulting in his final grade of a D in LGBT rights. When it comes to immigrants’ rights, Gov. Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at a higher education by signing the NJ Dream Act, but he removed an important provision that would have fully opened the doors of opportunity by allowing them to apply for state financial aid, earning him an overall grade of a C in immigrants’ rights. Gov. Christie earned Cs in a plurality of other subjects as well, including freedom of expression, women’s rights, privacy, and criminal justice and drug policy, although even those grades ranged from C- to C+.

    “The Christie administration deserves credit where credit is due, especially in taking a stand for religious expression and being responsive to voting concerns in the wake of Superstorm Sandy,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “But where Gov. Christie stumbles, such as when it comes to the separation of powers and to transparency, the bottom falls out. We hope the governor learned his civil liberties lesson from numerous court actions that were successfully brought against his administration during his first term, but if not, we’re ready to compel him to act as if he were an A student.”

    ACLU-NJ Files Seven Lawsuits Against School Districts’ Discriminatory Enrollment Policies

    June 2, 2014
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    Will continue efforts until all NJ school districts comply with state and federal law

    NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed seven lawsuits today against New Jersey school districts that have failed to comply with state and federal constitutional law requirements prohibiting discrimination against immigrant families attempting to enroll their children in school. The school districts sued today have maintained these discriminatory policies despite the ACLU-NJ’s repeated warnings to revoke them.

    These seven districts, located in three New Jersey counties, all require government-issued photo identification as a condition of enrollment, contrary to clearly established law. The ACLU-NJ’s lawsuits ask the courts to halt these unconstitutional school registration requirements immediately.

    “In the two months since the ACLU-NJ warned dozens of school districts about their unconstitutional policies, more than 100 of them responded commendably by scrapping such policies,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “In contrast, the districts we’re suing today decided to keep their restrictive policies, even after being notified about potential legal action. These seven districts impose policies that not only ignore clearly established law, but worse, discriminate. We won’t stand by and allow districts to continue these unlawful practices.”

    Constitutional law forbids school districts from excluding children based on their or their parents’ immigration status. However, the registration requirements in the seven school districts include proof of identification that can only be obtained by people who have lawful immigration status.

    The school districts the ACLU-NJ is suing have some of the most restrictive policies in the state. All seven require driver’s licenses or other comparable forms of identification. The seven districts that the ACLU-NJ sued are:

    • Camden County – Audubon, Gloucester Township, and Somerdale Park
    • Middlesex County – North Brunswick, Old Bridge Township, and Perth Amboy
    • Atlantic County – Galloway Township

    In March, the ACLU-NJ discovered that 136 school districts imposed illegal barriers to immigrant student enrollment. In early April, the ACLU-NJ sent letters to all 136, warning them that they would face the prospect of litigation if they did not comport with the law. As of late May, 109 changed their policies, and 27 others did not. While the policies of the remaining districts range in degree of noncompliance with the law, the ACLU-NJ chose those with the most overtly discriminatory policies for the initial seven lawsuits.

    “It is deeply troubling that in New Jersey today, public schools discriminate against immigrant families, and do so despite repeated warnings to come into compliance with clearly established law,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Immigrant children have an equal right to access a public school education, and schools must not erect barriers that prevent the exercise of this right. The ACLU of New Jersey will not rest until all children in New Jersey are treated equally, regardless of their immigration status.”

    New Jersey has two requirements that families must meet when attempting to enroll a child in public school: proof of age and proof of in-district residency. Both federal and state law and regulations dictate that schools cannot ask about a students’ immigration status, or, further, discriminate based on national origin or immigration status.

    In May, the United States Departments of Justice and of Education jointly issued a letter reminding schools that their enrollment processes must provide all children with equal access to an education. The guidance specified that requiring driver’s licenses during the enrollment process is impermissible.

    The ACLU-NJ began investigating the enrollment policies of New Jersey school districts in March, when residents of Butler, in Morris County, brought their restrictive enrollment policy to the organization’s attention. The ACLU-NJ filed a lawsuit when the school district refused to end its policy, and the district ultimately agreed to drop the restrictions.

    “The law in this area is unambiguous: schools cannot impose restrictions on enrollment that discriminate unconstitutionally,” said Shalom. “We want all New Jersey residents to know that no matter what your background is, your children have the right to enroll in their local school district. And, we hope that every school district will be vigilant in ensuring that they provide equal access to children so that we will not have to resort to court action to remind them of their obligation.”

    ACLU-NJ Warns Schools Statewide to Stop Discriminatory ID Policies

    April 1, 2014
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    NEWARK -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) sent a letter (PDF) to 136 New Jersey school districts today advising them to change their discriminatory enrollment policies or face litigation.

    The ACLU-NJ has identified 136 school districts that require overly restrictive forms of identification for an adult to enroll a child in school, contrary to state and federal law. Almost every New Jersey county had at least one school district with problematic identification guidelines, which tend to single out immigrant families. The ACLU-NJ’s website has a chart of every district identified.

    "Time and again, courts have ruled that in a democratic society, the doors of public schools must be open for all children who live here," said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. "Yet we still see schools putting up unconstitutional barriers that single out some students as less worthy of an education than others. All New Jersey school districts must uphold our democratic ideals by letting all New Jersey children enroll in school, as the law requires."

    The ACLU-NJ has given the school districts four weeks to reform their policies and practices before broaching the subject of litigation. The policies among the 136 districts varied widely in degree. Some districts requested both Social Security numbers and government-issued photo identification, a combination that plainly discriminates against children of undocumented parents. Other districts’ guidelines, such as those calling for photo ID without requiring that it be state-issued, also prevent or discourage undocumented parents from registering their children.

    "These regulations may not have been issued with any intent to discriminate, but regardless of why these regulations were put in place, in practice they prevent some children from getting the education they’re entitled to by law," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "All New Jersey school districts need to erase these policies from the books."

    The policies that call for state-issued identification all require a Social Security number or valid immigration status, which singles out immigrant communities in particular as ineligible for enrollment in school. New Jersey law requires proof only of the child’s age and residency within the district. While school districts may require proof of residency, the Constitution and state regulations mandate that public schools provide equal access to students regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status. Although the state Department of Education sends a semiannual reminder to school districts about enrollment requirements, nearly a quarter of public schools illegally ask for overly restrictive forms of identification.

    The ACLU-NJ investigated the policies of school districts after residents of Butler in Morris County brought their school district’s restrictive ID policy to the ACLU-NJ’s attention. After forcing the ACLU-NJ to bring the matter to court, Butler agreed to institute nondiscriminatory enrollment policies that comport with the clearly established law. In following up after Butler, the ACLU-NJ learned of more school districts and identified 136 that have onerous identification requirements, including some of New Jersey’s largest cities.

    The school districts of Jersey City, Trenton, Hamilton Township, Perth Amboy, Camden, Cherry Hill, East Orange, Montclair and Old Bridge, among the most populous municipalities in the state, all require IDs from families of prospective students that do not comply with state law. Bergen County had the highest number of school districts with restrictive ID policies, with 26 not complying. In 2011, the ACLU-NJ represented a resident of Bergen County who encountered difficulty enrolling his son in the Northern Valley Regional School District because of his status as an immigrant from Israel living in the United States on a visa. That school district now has an enrollment policy that does not discriminate against potential students based on their families’ immigration status.

    "We were surprised by the number and broad range of school districts with restrictive, discriminatory enrollment policies," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. "These policies exist in every almost county, from the poorest cities to the wealthiest suburbs, and everywhere in between. Clearly, the scale of this problem demands serious action, and serious self-examination among New Jersey school districts."

    To see every New Jersey school district with a restrictive ID policy in place, read the ACLU-NJ’s findings online.

    In 2008, the ACLU-NJ conducted rigorous telephone surveys of the more than 500 school districts in the state and discovered that 139 of them required documents that indicate immigration status, contrary to New Jersey regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Forty-six of these school districts still engage in discriminatory ID policies, according to the ACLU-NJ’s latest analysis.

    "The Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that all children have an equal right to a public school education, regardless of their immigration status," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "We many never know how many children have been deprived of an education because of the failure of school districts to comply with constitutional requirements."

    School District Drops Discriminatory Policy Upon ACLU-NJ Challenge

    March 11, 2014
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    Butler School District agrees in court to end policy that discriminates against immigrants that violated state laws and Constitution

    The Morris County school district sued by the ACLU-NJ for refusing to end a policy that discriminated against immigrant families agreed today in court to stop requiring overly restrictive forms of identification for student enrollment, in accordance with the Constitution and established New Jersey law. The Butler School District said today in New Jersey Superior Court that as a result of the ACLU-NJ’s lawsuit, officials there will no longer fight changes to abandon its photo ID policy.

    “We’re pleased that the Butler School District will finally change its policy to allow students to enroll without subjecting them to unlawful discrimination,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “We have said from the beginning that this issue should not have required intervention from a court, as the law unambiguously forbids barriers to children getting a public education based on immigration status.”

    Butler’s policy called for parents to present forms of ID that they could obtain only with a Social Security number or valid immigration status, therefore singling out immigrant communities during public school registration. While school districts may require proof of residency, the Constitution and state regulations mandate that public schools provide equal access to students regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status. Members of the Butler community contacted the ACLU-NJ to let them know of Butler’s barriers to enrollment, and when the school district said that it would not change the rule, the ACLU-NJ took the issue to court.

    “Today’s agreement reaffirms the importance of our public schools in a healthy democracy and strong communities,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “These types of impermissible restrictions cause stress and fear in families. Thankfully, parents in Butler can breathe a sigh of relief this week during Butler’s enrollment period, knowing that their children will not be blocked from their constitutional right to an education. From a local court in Morris County to the highest court in the country, the law recognizes the essential function of educating every child in America, no matter what.”

    In 2008, the ACLU-NJ conducted rigorous telephone surveys of the more than 500 school districts in the state and discovered that 139 of them (including Butler) required documents that indicate immigration status, contrary to New Jersey regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Officials from the New Jersey Department of Education now regularly remind school districts each semester of their obligation to enroll all local students, regardless of immigration status.

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