Advocates for homeless children are participating in a broad legal challenge of Florida’s education policies and funding in hopes of highlighting the struggles of the uniquely disadvantaged group of students.
Attorneys representing the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, and the Disability and Public Benefits Clinic at Florida Coastal School of Law submitted an amicus curiae brief to a state appellate court in the Citizens for Strong Schools lawsuit. They argue the state is shirking its constitutional duty of providing high-quality education to homeless students.
The Leon County Circuit Court sided with the state in the broader lawsuit last year, but the plaintiffs appealed, and a three-judge panel for the 1st District Court of Appeal heard oral arguments last week. Baker Donelson lawyers, who are working pro bono on behalf of the homeless advocates, filed the brief as well as a motion asking for five minutes of oral arguments during the hearing. Their request was denied. But the attorneys are likely to stay involved if the appeal is denied and the plaintiffs bring the case to the Supreme Court, one of the lawyers said.
“The data submitted to the trial court indicated that this large population of children — in excess of 70,000 statewide — are not doing well, and, in fact, are doing increasingly worse,” said Angela Fiorentino, an attorney working on the case. “It’s our position that the state has an obligation to address this failing and that the trail court didn’t take into consideration all of the data that was submitted.”
In its defense, the state has focused on how much progress Florida’s public schools have made in recent years, as their students in the state have moved up from among the worst-performing to among the best-performing on national standardized tests. The trial court judge agreed. But while outcomes for most students have improved, that’s not true for homeless students, whose academic performance has worsened compared with their peers in other states, according to research the advocates submitted to the appellate court.
“Evidence presented at trial demonstrates that homeless children have unique, yet, identifiable needs which if addressed, improve educational outcomes,” according to the brief filed with the appellate court.
According to data presented in the brief, 61 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys who run away from home report sexual abuse as the reason why they left. Further, 46 percent of homeless youth report being physically abused, 38 percent report being emotionally abused, and 17 percent report being forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member. Between 6 and 22 percent of homeless girls are pregnant.
“These life circumstances and trauma experienced by homeless children shape their ability to learn and behave at school … resulting in an astonishing 75 [percent] dropout rate,” the brief said."