Estefany Sandoval left El Salvador for many reasons: her parents physically abused her, gangs were zeroing in on her community and she felt like she couldn’t be herself.
In September of 2016, at age 16, she left her country and traveled for three months through Central America and Mexico, hopeful she would find a safer and better life in the United States. Sandoval is among the more than 180,000 unaccompanied minors that have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border since October 2016.
Her asylum case is ongoing.
Sandoval is also one of two students who spoke up against discriminatory enrollment tactics at the Glendale Union High School District that excluded from its schools eligible immigrant and refugee teens who are learning English and are 17 years or older.
Last month, amid an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the district agreed to reform its enrollment practices to ensure it does not discriminate against prospective students because they are older, learning English or from another country.
‘I felt like they crushed me there’
On a recent December morning, Sandoval, now 18, spoke from her Glendale home where she now lives with foster parents. The walls in the kitchen and living room behind her are adorned with reclaimed wood she made into decorations.
She likes to draw, design and construct things.
Her biggest aspiration right now is to learn English, graduate high school and earn a professional degree, she told the Arizona Mirror.
Back in El Salvador, Sandoval loved going to school. Math was among her favorite subjects. When she finished 6th grade, her parents told her she couldn’t continue school.
“They didn’t see it as something important,” Sandoval said. “They didn’t finish high school and thought that for me it wasn’t important, either.”
The high school was a dangerous hour-long walk, and her parents couldn’t afford to arrange for transportation, she said.
After she arrived in the U.S, she spent a couple of months in a shelter and then lived with relatives in California and New York, she said.
In September 2017, Sandoval arrived in Arizona, where she now lives with a foster family. She felt hopeful she could restart her life in the Grand Canyon State.
Within a few weeks, Sandoval and a social worker went to enroll her at Glendale High School, hoping she could begin school the next day.
A school director met with them. He mocked Sandoval because she was too old to be in 9th grade and didn’t know English, she said. He told her she couldn’t attend the school and that her only option at the district was to enroll in an online program, which he couldn’t guarantee would take place because it needed an enrollment of 30 students, she said.
Sandoval said she insisted and told the school director she wanted to try, but he refused to enroll her at the school.
“He told me so many things that made me feel bad… I felt like they crushed me there,” she said.
Sandoval then enrolled at a charter school, Maya High School, but felt unwelcome by the teacher and isolated by the other students.
“The teacher would make fun of me because I didn’t understand what she was saying,” Sandoval recalled. She said they’d also leave her out of classroom group activities, so she stopped attending.
The high school education her parents had denied her in El Salvador was now also blocked off in Arizona by administrators in Glendale Union and another educational institution.
“When I was in my country, I loved school. I still like it, but, when so many things happen to you, you feel like your dreams are crushed, you know?” Sandoval said.
ACLU: Glendale Union violates AZ and federal law
Through her social worker, the Demand to Learn campaign from the American Civil Rights Union found out about Sandoval’s case in April, said Anabel Maldonado, lead organizer with the campaign, which advocates for changes in school policies that disproportionately affect students of color.
The ACLU had already been investigating reports of discrimination at Glendale Union from refugee resettlement organizations and immigrants rights groups, according to ACLU attorney Darrell Hill.
School officials were denying enrollment to immigrant and refugee teenagers age 17 or older because they were too old or didn’t know enough English to graduate before turning 21, and instead were directing them to charter schools or a district online program, Hill said. The tactics were so consistent that community groups steered immigrant and refugee students away from seeking enrollment at Glendale Union, the ACLU said.
Arizona law requires school districts to admit students between age 6 and 21 who live in the district, don’t have a high school diploma and meet other enrollment requirements.
In March, on behalf of a Salvadoran teen, the ACLU sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights alleging that Glendale Union discriminates on the basis of national origin and age against English-language learner students by refusing to enroll them.
The district had also required that teen, who was represented by the ACLU, to submit a psychological evaluation before enrolling, discriminating him on the basis of disability, the ACLU argued.
This experience has a profound impact on these immigrant teens, Hill said.
“Estefany and the other student, they spent almost a year without access to education, and it really cut them off from their community,” he said. “To have school officials laughing at students, at what they were trying to accomplish by restarting their lives in America… It forces people into the shadows.”
In the November resolution agreement, Glendale Union Superintendent Brian Capistran did not admit wrongdoing, but said the district will train staff on discrimination, offer older students enrollment in its schools and not just its online program, revise its enrollment documents and not inquire about immigration status or request refugee status documentation.
“If staff learn or have reason to believe that a student seeking enrollment is an undocumented immigrant, ELL (English-language learner), or an older (e.g. aged 17 to 21) student, that information shall have no bearing or negative impact on the student’s timely enrollment in the District,” the agreement said.
Glendale Union will designate a contact person to help immigrants or refugees with enrollment questions.
Obstacles to returning to school
The district also agreed to offer enrollment to the two students represented by the ACLU and others with similar backgrounds who tried to enroll at the district.
Glendale Union offered Sandoval and the other teen represented by the ACLU enrollment, said district spokeswoman Kim Mesquita.
“We responded to the ACLU immediately to inform the students they could enroll at any time,” Mesquita said in an email. “Despite this communication to the students through the ACLU, the students never returned to enroll.”
Sandoval explained that she didn’t return because she doesn’t have any assurances that things will be better than what she has already experienced. The words from the Glendale Union administrator and her bad experiences at the charter school have weighed on her.
“I feel… I’m not sure if I can say fear, but because it didn’t go well for me in the first school… I think about that. And I am afraid to go back… What if it’s the same? Or worse? I don’t…. I don’t feel encouraged,” Sandoval said.
Maldonado, with the Demand to Learn campaign, said people like Sandoval are working hard to integrate into a new country and an educational space should be welcoming and not one where they feels isolated.
The ACLU and OCR will continue to monitor the district.
Recently, an immigration judge granted Sandoval a work permit, which some asylum-seekers are eligible for while their process is going through the immigration courts.
She bought a car and works shelving groceries at a Ranch Market store. She struggles to make friends and is coming to terms with expressing her sexual orientation, she said.
In the U.S., she now feels free to say that she likes girls. When she told her parents back in El Salvador, they got angry and threatened to kill her if she returned, she said.
“From afar, they can’t kill me,” Sandoval said.
While she’s gathering confidence to go back to school in January, she’s happy about the changes in Glendale Union.
“I really liked that the demands we made against the school… That they accepted that they did things wrong,” Sandoval said. “And that the kids that come behind me don’t have the problem I had and they can move ahead with their dreams.”