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  KALEUATI v. TONDA
 
  Settlement reached in lawsuit to identify and provide services for homeless children.
 

HONOLULU – U.S. District Court Chief Judge Helen Gillmor today approved a settlement
agreement in a case brought by a statewide class of homeless children and their parents against
the Hawaii Department of Education (“DOE”) and Board of Education (“Board”). The
settlement requires the State to provide homeless children with equal access to public education
and remove barriers to their educational success.

Alice Greenwood, a homeless advocate and a named Plaintiff, said, “All I ever wanted was for
my son to have the same education as everyone else. I hope things will be better now.” Olivé
Kaleuati, also a named Plaintiff, agreed: “It’s been a long road, but I’m glad we’ve finally
reached an agreement. Hopefully DOE will do its part so that all homeless children will
benefit.”

Despite receiving federal monies under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act for many
years, the Board and DOE had rules, policies, and paperwork that made it extremely difficult for
homeless children to receive the same level of education as non-homeless children. The lawsuit
charged that Hawaii schools have forced homeless children to change schools multiple times in a
single year, denied them the ability to enroll, and refused to allow them access to the safe school
transportation services enjoyed by non-homeless students.

The lawsuit, Kaleuati v. Tonda, was filed in federal district court in October 2007 by Lawyers
for Equal Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation (“ACLU of
Hawaii”), and the law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing. After a series of victories by the Plaintiffs,
the Board and DOE chose to settle the case when faced with additional court hearings.
One of the biggest barriers for homeless children has been the lack of transportation to and from
school. In the settlement agreement, the DOE and Board agreed to take the long-needed step of
running additional school buses on the Leeward Coast, the highest density homeless area in the
State. Where school buses are not available, the DOE will also offer mileage reimbursement for
those parents who wish to drive their children to school, supply bus passes for children (and an
adult or guardian when the student is too young to travel alone), and/or modify existing school
bus routes to pick up homeless children.

    Under additional provisions of the settlement, the DOE shall:
  • Hire additional homeless liaisons on each island to assist homeless families in navigating
    the public school system;
  • Inform homeless children and families of their rights under the McKinney-Vento Act
    (most notably, a child’s right to remain in her or his current school – and receive
    transportation to that school – even if the family moves outside of the school district in
    search of shelter);
  • Conduct yearly trainings of school personnel, and make annual site visits to schools and
    homeless shelters statewide;
  • Modify its enrollment forms and computer systems to facilitate the enrollment process
    and improve attendance for homeless children; and
  • Take affirmative steps to avoid stigmatizing homeless families.

William Durham of Lawyers for Equal Justice described the agreement as a big step forward.
“We are very happy the State Defendants finally decided to do the right thing for these children.
Under this agreement, we shouldn’t hear any more stories of children being forced, repeatedly, to
change schools, or of children waking up at four in the morning just to get to school on time.”
“We hope that the gaps have been filled and that thousands of children will finally have access to
the educational foundation they need to succeed in the future” said Daniel Gluck, ACLU Senior
Staff Attorney. “These changes are long overdue.”

Paul Alston, of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, said: “The fact that it took a lawsuit and nearly nine
months in court to resolve this matter is shameful. The DOE’s obligations were clear and the
violations were indisputable. This is yet another unfortunate example of the wide gap between
the State’s rhetoric about improving education and the reality that the administration cannot be
trusted to do the right thing for children – especially poor ones.”

Under federal law, a child is considered “homeless” if she lacks a “fixed, regular, and adequate
nighttime residence.” This includes children living at shelters (including domestic violence
shelters), in parks, at the beach, and in cars. It also includes the “hidden homeless”: the
estimated 20,000 children in Hawaii who live “doubled up” with friends or family because their
families cannot afford a place of their own.

Olivé Kaleauti described how her two sons, also named Plaintiffs in the case, were proud of what
they had done for Hawaii’s homeless children: “It hasn’t really hit them, how big a deal it is that
they’ve accomplished so much at their age. But I told them what happened, and they said, ‘We
just helped all the homeless kids go to school now.’”

For questions about services available to homeless children and their families under the
settlement or under the McKinney Vento Act, please contact Judy Tonda, the Statewide
Homeless Concerns Resource Teacher, at (808) 394-1394 or (866) 927-9095 (toll-free from the
neighbor islands).

The lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Hawaii, Lawyers for Equal Justice, and Alston, Hunt, Floyd & Ing alleged that the state failed to carry out a section of federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act, which requires state and local school districts to help homeless children receive educational services. AHFI attorneys Paul Alston, Shellie Park-Hoapili, Stephen Tannenbaum, and Roman Amaguin participated in this case.

[link to related story at Lawyers for Equal Justice website]

[Additional link to related story at Honolulu Star Advertiser]

Click here to read background information about this class action.