In Rose Tree Media School District v. G.S., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision affirming the ruling of the District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania that G.S., a minor, should have been enrolled in the Rose Tree Media School District under the McKinney-Vento Act (Subtitle VII-B), 42 U.S.C. 11434a(2) and 11432(g)(3)(A)(i). This decision strengthens the protections for homeless youth, underscoring that the law does not designate a limit to the duration of homelessness. It also specifically provides for youth living in “doubled up” conditions and the presumption that it is in a child’s best interest to remain in their school of origin unless the child or a parent request otherwise. Practitioners should be aware of this ruling and familiarize themselves with the various provisions of McKinney-Vento in order to effectively protect the rights of students facing similar exclusion from the education to which they are entitled.
G.S. and his family lived in a rental home in the Rose Tree Media School District from 2010–2014 until they lost their home due to missed payments. The family moved in with G.S.’ grandmother, outside of the district, and shared the space with other family members, with G.S. sleeping in the living room, kitchen, or basement. The Rose Tree School District deemed G.S. and his sister, S.S., homeless and enrollment continued in the school district. However, in January 2015, G.S. was involved in a disciplinary incident at school and was suspended and threatened with expulsion. A settlement agreement was reached following a parental challenge of the district’s disciplinary actions. G.S. was to attend an out-of-district school for the 2015–2016 school year, with his parents waiving all claims through August 2016. The agreement included a provision that also waived claims of homelessness after the 2015–2016 school year. Despite this provision, G.S. and his parents sought to reenroll G.S. in a Rose Tree district school and were denied. A grievance was filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which decided that G.S. did have a right to be enrolled under McKinney-Vento due to the family’s continued temporary living situation and acknowledgment of Rose Tree as his school district of origin. Rose Tree continued to refuse enrollment, despite their continued enrollment G.S.’ sister under McKinney-Vento. Both the parents, on behalf of G.S., and Rose Tree filed suit and moved for summary judgment. The District Court found for G.S. and Rose Tree appealed.
On appeal, Rose Tree argued that (1) G.S.’ parents waived his McKinney-Vento rights in the settlement agreement, (2) that G.S. was no longer homeless due to the length of his current living arrangement, and (3) that enrollment in the school district was not in his best interest.
The District Court found that the relevant provision of the settlement agreement was unenforceable due to a lack of consideration, as any consideration provided was limited to the period before August 31, 2016. The best interest argument had not been raised in the District Court proceeding, and while the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was not required to address it, the decision acknowledges the presumption that it is in a child’s best interest to remain in their school of origin unless that decision would be contrary to the request of the youth or their parent/guardian. This was not the case here, as G.S. and his parents had clearly desired enrollment in the Rose Tree District.
For practitioners, the most relevant portion of the appeal and subsequent decision involves the definition of homelessness under McKinney-Vento and the factors that led the court to reject this argument. Rose Tree argued that G.S. was not homeless under Subtitle VII-B of the act, “Education for Homeless Children and Youth,” which protects a child’s right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of housing status. The school district claimed G.S. no longer lacked a “fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence” because the family had been living in the grandmother’s home for a number of years. The Appeals Court highlighted the lack of a statutory limit of duration of homelessness and the language of 42 U.S.C. 11434a(2)(B)(i), which states that “children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason” are homeless children and youths under the law. Further, Department of Education guidance has clarified that youth who satisfy this specific definition are often referred to as “doubled up,” as G.S. was here. Rose Tree also initially treated G.S. as homeless and did not argue that his living situation had changed, while additionally continuing to enroll his sister, who was living in the exact same way.
Practitioners representing youth and families in educational access matters should familiarize themselves with this decision, and further, with the definitions under Subtitle VII-B and related provisions. For youth who face housing insecurity and related hardships, school stability is of vital importance and the law has been designed to protect their interests in situations like the one G.S. faced. This ruling emphasizes the need for effective legal advocacy in assuring that youth receive the education to which they are entitled and sets a strong precedent for future challenges.