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Student Still 'Homeless' After 4 Years on Grandmother's Cot, Appeals Court Rules

A student who has lived with his grandmother since his parents lost their home under financial distress in 2014 still meets the definition of a homeless youth under federal law, and his school district of origin must continue to enroll him, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia,  ruled unanimously for a student identified in court papers as G.S., who moved with his parents, two sisters, and his paternal grandparents into his maternal grandmother's 1,500-square-foot rowhouse near Rose Tree, Pa. 

G.S. has slept on a cot either in the living room, kitchen, or basement of that home ever since, the court said.

The grandmother's home was outside the boundaries of the Rose Tree Media School District, and the district initially considered G.S. and one of his sisters to be homeless and entitled to continue attending school in the district under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

In 2015, G.S. was involved in a disciplinary incident at his school, and the district suspended him and threatened him with expulsion. After G.S.'s parents challenged the expulsion, the district and parents signed an agreement to send G.S. to another district for the 2015-16 school year.

After that year, the parents sought to enroll G.S. back in the Rose Tree Media district, which the district refused on the basis that the parents had waived G.S.'s right to claim homelessness under the discipline settlement. The parents sued the district under McKinney-Vento, and the district countersued seeking a declaration that it was not obligated to enroll G.S.

A federal district court ruled for the student, and the 3rd Circuit court affirmed in G.S. v. Rose Tree Media School District. (The appeals court panel initially issued its decision as a non-precedential ruling in November, but reissued it on Jan. 22 as precedential.)

The appeals court held that the parents did not waive G.S.'s right to claim homelessness in the discipline settlement. And the court rejected the school district's argument that it need not enroll G.S. because he was no longer homeless under the federal law.

The court noted that McKinney-Vento considers students who are living "doubled up" in another home to be homeless.

"There is no dispute that G.S. satisfied [McKinnney-Vento] when he first moved in with his maternal grandmother," the appeals court said. "Rather, the question is whether G.S. continues to satisfy this definition almost four years later."

The school district argued that the student no longer lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence becase his doubled-up living arrangement has persisted for several years.

"We are not convinced," the court said. G.S.'s living arrangement continues to meet the statute's definition of homeless, and the law does not impose a limit on the duration of homelessness, the court said. 

"This undermines Rose Tree's argument that a doubled-up arrangement can transform into a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence if it persists long enough," the court said. Also, the Rose Tree district continued to enroll G.S.'s sister even when G.S. left the district after the disciplinary incident, and it appears to be in G.S.'s best interest to enroll him in the Rose Tree district, the court said.

"To remove G.S. from the protections of the act under these circumstances strikes us as nothing short of arbitrary," the court said.

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