Naco school discriminated against disabled, Spanish speakers
Associated Press
Oct. 13, 2006

BISBEE - A federal investigation found that a southern Arizona school discriminated against students with disabilities and parents who speak Spanish but rejected claims that administrators violated federal law by doing random checks at the Mexican border to make sure students were U.S. residents.

The ruling by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights found that the Naco Elementary School hadn't met its legal obligations to provide disabled students with individualized education plans. The school also didn't provide non-English-speaking parents with school materials they could read or translate at board meetings.

The school signed an agreement with the education department agreeing to fix the problems, according to Patricia Marsh, the school superintendent. A new special education teacher has been hired, and a staff member will be trained to interpret for parents.

In a letter outlining the civil rights office findings, Office of Civil Rights attorney Nicole Huggins said school administrators had not unfairly singled out Hispanics when they performed random border checks and home visits on 25 students suspected of living in Naco, Mexico, during the 2004-2005 school year. The students were U.S. citizens but their parents were told they would have to pay tuition or leave the school because they lived outside the district.

Because the town and school were so small, Huggins wrote that school officials were aware of the family situations of almost all Naco Elementary students and were acting on first-hand knowledge when they investigated some students.

Phoenix-based civil rights activist Silverio Garcia complained about the issues in May, 2005, and accused the education department of "chickening out" on the border checks.

"They didn't want to get into it politically, mainly because of the very anti-immigrant climate in Arizona and the United States right now," he said.

Garcia also said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne encouraged public school officials along the border to assume the role of federal immigration officials. He said he would continue to fight school border checks in Naco, Douglas, Nogales and San Luis.

Horne said he tells school officials they should monitor border crossings and said the practice is legal.

"If they are residents of Arizona, even if they are here illegally, we are going to educate them," Horne said. "But if they are residents of Mexico and they cross the border to go to school, the state is not going to pay for that."

Marsh said she stopped monitoring the border crossing after taking over the district and has no plans to reinstate it.

"I've been advised by the Arizona School Boards Association that it is not something that you want to do," Marsh said. "As a school district superintendent, you are not a law enforcement agent."

Naco Elementary School requires its students to demonstrate proof of residency before enrolling, Marsh said. Once that is done, she does not feel compelled to perform supplemental checks.

During the 2004-2005 school year, the school had an enrollment of 255 students, 249 of whom were Hispanic. Twenty-three students were identified as having disabilities.