Third Circuit Case Puts Spotlight on Student Homelessness

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — A Pennsylvania school district struggled to persuade the Third Circuit on Monday that the student it kicked out after a disciplinary issue should not be considered homeless.

For the attorney for the Rose Tree Media School District, a place to sleep every night, and a roof over the family’s heads, is enough to demonstrate adequate housing. But this argument did not sit well Monday with U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Vanaskie, one of three judges on a panel considering the school’s appeal.

“What constitutes adequate housing,” Vanaskie asked. “A shack would have a roof over your head, is that adequate?”

As described in a brief from the family, the housing here that Rose Tree Media schools describes as adequate is a single-family row house in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania.

The space measures just 1,500 square feet and since 2014 has housed 10 people, five adults and five children. The appellate brief from Rose Tree Media schools, on the other hand, says: “the law does not require residence in a perfect middle class single family home with separate bedrooms before it can be said that homelessness has ceased.”

Identified in the court record only by his initials, the student G.S. has been living at the Brookhaven property with his family since 2014. The family’s brief notes that they had to “double up” in the home with the maternal grandmother of G.S. because the father had been out of work for over a year.

Soon after the family moved, the Rose Tree Media School District inspecting their living situation and deemed the family homeless, allowing G.S. and his sister, S.S., to remain enrolled in the district as required by a federal law known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

J.S. claims that the district is known in violation of that law by insisting now that it has no further obligation for his education.

Rose Tree Media schools reclassified G.S. in 2015 as part of a settlement to what is described in the school’s brief “a serious discipline matter in which the lives of certain named students were threatened.”

The settlement included a waiver where the parents of J.S. agreed not to make any claim of homeless status after the 2015-16 school year, but the family’s attorney argued Monday that it is illegal for parents to waive rights belonging exclusively to G.S.

U.S. Circuit Judge Kent Jordan pushed the family’s attorney on whether it constitutes doubling up, which qualifies as inadequate under the McKinney-Vento Act, every time a family moves in with grandparents.

“If a grandma invites her kids and grandkids into the home, is that doubling up?” Jordan asked. “If it’s temporary to start with, are you forever homeless after that?”

Michael Raffaele, an attorney for G.S. with the firm Frankel & Kershenbaum, noted Monday that 62 percent of homeless students in Pennsylvania are doubled up.

Earlier during the school district’s argument, Jordan seem skeptical that J.S.’ living condition could be described as stable.

“Their grandma could change their mind tomorrow, doesn’t that make their living situation tenuous?” Jordan said. “Your whole case rest on that their grandma will keep them.”

Rose Tree Media schools are represented in the case by Katherine Meehan, an attorney with the firm Raffaele Puppio in Media. She argued Monday that the situation constitutes multiple occupancy, not doubling up, which allows families to legally establish a residency.

The district is seeking a reversal from the Third Circuit after a federal judge ruled against it at summary judgment last year.  Pursuant to that order, J.S. is a junior this year at Penncrest High School in the Rose Tree Media School District.

After Meehan’s rebuttal, U.S Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro asked the attorneys to approach the bench for a private discussion.

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