More than seven weeks after she was kicked out of school, accused of not living in the district, a 14-year-old girl returned to school Monday at Central High.
But the case brought on behalf of the girl, who is identified in court papers only as “DB,” is not over.
“We’re just going through the beginning stages,” promised Billy Burkette, the girl’s father.
Burkette and his wife, Tonya, hired Baton Rouge attorney Jill Craft after their daughter, who has been a student in the Central school system since second grade, was abruptly dropped from the rolls at Central High on Aug. 20.
On Wednesday, state District Judge Todd Hernandez presided over a lengthy hearing in the case. Two days later, he sided with the Burkettes. Hernandez issued a temporary injunction Friday ordering Central to let the girl back into ninth grade, which she’d barely started.
The family, however, is still seeking a permanent injunction.
“I’m not here for any special treatment,” said the father. “We just want what we deserve as citizens and residents of Central.”
Superintendent Michael Faulk briefed the School Board on Monday night behind closed doors. The board did not discuss the case publicly and took no action.
Afterward, Faulk said the high school is placing the girl in its “credit recovery program” to help her catch up on the weeks of work she missed. He said he’s not sure if Central will continue to fight the case.
“We still need to talk to our lawyers,” Faulk said.
He said several factors led to the decision to remove the girl from Central High, including the discovery that Burkette appeared to have a homestead exemption on a property in East Feliciana Parish. Asked if he would do the same thing today based on what he knew in August, Faulk said, “I can’t say that.”
Billy Burkette also attended Monday’s meeting. He said his daughter suffers from cerebral palsy, requiring accommodations the school system has been reluctant to provide. He said Faulk also doesn’t like him personally because he’s tried unsuccessfully to get Central to highlight Native American history and traditions; Burkette is chairman of the Louisiana Band of Choctaw tribe.
“I think it’s a personal vendetta he has against me,” Burkette said.
The popular Central school district has repeatedly tightened its residency requirements through the years as its enrollment has ballooned, straining its capacity.
The Burkette family say they’ve lived in Central for decades; mother, Tonya Burkette, is a graduate of Central High.
Their three children began attending Central schools in 2008, a year after the school district gained independence from the East Baton Rouge Parish school district. Each year, like all families, they turn in paperwork to prove their residency, including utility bills, a copy of their lease and a voter registration card.
Despite this, according to the father, Central has on at least five occasions sent school personnel to their home on Droze Road to see for themselves. On three occasions, Robert Williams, who handles truancy for Central, eyeballed the Burkette children, comparing them to school photographs, before being satisfied they lived at that address. Records of those visits were entered into court papers.
During this time, two older siblings of the 14-year-old girl graduated from Central High. When it came time for the youngest to go to Central High, the family ran into more resistance. Before she could enroll, the family was informed they had to visit Williams once again. But Williams took ill over the summer.
Instead, Faulk handled their case and he soon decided to remove the girl from the school.
Billy Burkette said he’s learned that Central hired three outside groups to do background checks. It was an Internet-based check by one of those companies that turned up the alleged homestead exemption in Slaughter; Billy Burkette said that property is not his but is owned by his mother.
Burkette said he objects to some of the tactics used by investigators, including at least three times when his automobile license plates were run through a federal criminal database, and an attempt to verify that the Internet address he uses for his laptop came from Droze Road.
“My rights were violated,” he said.
He said he wants his daughter’s education caught up, he wants an apology, but he also is prepared to seek financial damages, worrying that without losing money, Central leaders won’t take his case seriously.
“I just want my daughter not to have to struggle,” he said. “I don’t want my child criticized. I don’t want my child picked on. I want her to go back to be with the friends she’s been with since second grade.”