First they were homeless. Now these Gaston County children lose their spots in school.

A North Carolina mother has accused Gaston County Schools and the state’s education department of violating federal law by denying her children a desk, a chair and the right to an education after her family became homeless halfway through the school year.

She filed a complaint alleging that Lisa Phillips, who is the state coordinator for the education of homeless children, blocked the children from attending their schools of origin after the family was evicted and then moved twice while trying to re-establish a permanent home.

The complaint filed in Charlotte’s U.S. District Court of the Western District of North Carolina on Jan. 26 asks a judge to allow her children to stay in their original schools while she appeals her case. It names Phillips, Gaston County Schools and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction as defendants.

The mother, who is unnamed in the complaint, told The Charlotte Observer that Gaston County Schools “just don’t believe her” — and claims they’re violating the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that mandates a homeless child’s family may choose whether the child will attend the school where the family or child lived before becoming homeless or where they currently live.

“Homeless children are being turned away at the schoolhouse door midyear, significantly impacting their educational development,” she wrote in the complaint.

The mother alleges the Gaston County Schools director of student assignments — during a November conversation about her family’s situation — commented on an energy drink she was drinking, “saying how it was expensive and she herself could not afford to buy one,” according to court documents.

Because the judge is not required to quickly address the preliminary injunction filing, the children are stuck in a home-school limbo, she told the Observer, and it’s not going well.

Homeschooled and homeless

The mother, a 51-year-old disabled veteran, was granted guardianship of her great niece and great nephew following substance abuse issues involving their biological parents, she told The Charlotte Observer in a phone interview Wednesday.

She’s used her disability pay to support them since they were about 10 months old, she told the Observer.

Now, they’re 9 and 13 and spend their days being homeschooled, no longer allowed at New Hope Elementary School or Cramerton Middle School after the family moved into a new house following an eviction. They’ll likely soon have to leave this one, too, she said in the complaint.

The mother requested to remain anonymous, citing concern for her children’s privacy and reputation.

The children are angry and bitter, the mother told the Observer, and she’s exhausted from nights spent studying case law.

“I have a 9-year-old who doesn’t understand why school won’t let him back in,” she said. “He just wants to be with his friends.”

The school board first told the mother her homelessness defense was invalid because she had eventually acquired a place to live, the mother told the Observer. Weeks later, a school social worker said her homelessness was “voluntary” because she had reached an agreement with her landlord after an eviction notice.

“Voluntary homelessness” is not acknowledged in the McKinney-Vento Act, the primary piece of legislation protecting education for children experiencing homelessness.

Becoming homeless

In September, a landlord tried to evict the family from a Gastonia home they’d lived in for about two years, the complaint said. The mother negotiated an Oct. 10 move-out day with the landlord, according to court documents, and they left the residence after squatting until Oct. 18.

When she told the children’s schools they would no longer ride the bus and would be picked up from school, a secretary at New Hope Elementary School asked her son if they moved, according to court documents.

The trio was then living with the children’s grandmother, their belongings stowed in her now-crowded apartment, a U-Haul and car backseats.

According to Congress, the McKinney-Vento Act includes families who are “doubling up” in the definition of homeless, the complaint says.

After three weeks without a home, the family moved to a house on Atticus Avenue, which is still in Gaston County School’s district. When the mother tried to explain her family’s situation to the Cramerton Middle School social worker who texted her on Nov. 9, the worker did not answer, according to the complaint.

The new home, which is out of their budget, was the only housing available when the grandmother’s apartment said they could not stay there. It is 7.4 miles away from Cramerton Middle School and 8.3 miles away from New Hope Elementary School. Her original home was 2.3 miles away from Cramerton and 3.3 miles away from New Hope.

It is unclear if the new home’s location has affected the students’ ability to stay at their original schools.

Transfer requests and a truancy notice

On Wednesday, hours after talking to the Observer, the mother was served a truancy notice from Southwest Middle School, the new middle school one child was expected to start on Jan. 16.

She told the Observer she requested multiple types of transfers — exceptional circumstances, hardship, out-of-district — but she said Phillips told her transfer periods were closed. She hoped the injunction would help remedy to issue, she said.

“It was never the plan to keep them out of school this long,” she told the Observer.

McKinney-Vento demands officials must review and revise any policies or practices that bar homeless children from enrollment, attendance or success.

The mother says the district, state and Phillips have failed to do so.

Gaston County Schools and Phillips have not responded to requests for comment.

The state’s Department of Public Instruction declined to comment on the case because it “deals with allegations involving students,” though no students are named in the filing.