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Victory For Homeless Athlete Lowers Barriers For Homeless Students

zach shooting

Zach Sanchez (in red) on the court after NCYL wins in court

by Stephanie Krol and Leecia Welch

The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) recently won an important legal victory against the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) on behalf of Zach Sanchez, a homeless youth living in Weaverville, California.  CIF, the governing body of interscholastic sports in California, had wrongfully delayed and blocked Zach from playing sports.  After NCYL filed a lawsuit on Zach’s behalf and obtained a favorable court ruling, CIF settled the case and deemed Zach eligible to play sports for the remainder of the school year.  In granting a temporary restraining order in the case, the Court found that Zach was likely to succeed in proving that CIF violated his equal protection rights by holding him to a different standard than non-homeless youth.

Zach’s case poignantly demonstrates that California’s homeless students still face significant barriers to fully engaging in student life despite state and federal protections.  First, CIF bylaws do not include a clear timeline for processing transfer paperwork and hardship waiver applications.  Second, the hardship application process can result in homeless students having to “prove” their homeless status despite a finding by the school that the youth meets the definition established in federal law.  Finally, CIF’s hardship application process can unfairly disadvantage homeless youth by holding them to a higher academic eligibility standard than other youth.

Zach’s case was not the first time NCYL was forced to take legal action to ensure vulnerable youth have equal access to extracurricular activities.  In 2008, NCYL represented foster youth Dalton Dyer when he was wrongfully determined to be residentially ineligible to play sports based on a change in his foster care placement.  In Dalton’s case, the court found that CIF Bylaws violated California laws designed to ensure that foster children had the same access to extracurricular and interscholastic activities as their peers.  The court also held that CIF violated the California Constitution because there was no rational basis for CIF to subject foster children to additional burdens when the Bylaws were put into place to deter students from transferring for athletic motivation. Dyer v. Cal. Interscholastic Fed’n, No. RG08421517 (Super. Ct. Alameda Cnty. Nov. 25, 2008)(order and judgment granting in part petition for writ of mandate under CCP §1085).

As part of the resolution of Zach’s lawsuit, CIF will work with NCYL to bring their Bylaws into compliance with state and federal laws designed to protect the educational rights of homeless youth.  This work is currently underway.  NCYL is hopeful that CIF will work collaboratively to protect the participation of homeless youth in interscholastic sports.

Understanding the Problem of Youth Homelessness in California

Under federal law, homeless youth are defined as youth who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”1 Homeless youth live in a variety of temporary housing situations, including sharing the housing of friends or relatives (“couch-surfing”), living in shelters, living in a car, or staying in a public place, like a park, abandoned building, or under a bridge.2

During the 2012-2013 school year, there were 1.25 million homeless youth enrolled in public schools throughout the United States.3 California’s public schools enrolled 21% of the U.S. homeless youth population,4 or 269,663 homeless youth.5 Los Angeles County has the highest number homeless youth enrolled in school in California (31,132); however, rural Trinity County, where Zach lives, has the highest overall percentage (13.3%).6

Youth become homeless for a variety of complicated reasons, but family conflict is the most commonly cited cause.7 Family conflict encompasses youth who are told to leave home or who are abandoned or deserted by their parents; youth who are prevented from returning home; and youth who are rejected by their families due to teen pregnancy or their sexual orientation.8 Many youth become homeless because they are unhappy in or age out of foster care or after being released from a juvenile justice facility.9


Without parental supervision and protection, homeless youth are vulnerable to predatory individuals and sexual victimization.10 Homelessness can also result in, or exacerbate, serious emotional trauma and other mental and physical health problems.11 Homeless youth show an elevated risk of anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, increased risks of substance abuse and incarceration, and suicide due to increased exposure to violence while living on the street.12 Additionally, homeless girls are more likely to likely to become pregnant and far more likely to experience multiple pregnancies than their peers.13

Homelessness harms a youth’s educational opportunities in a number of ways and for a variety of reasons.  Homeless youth have higher dropout rates than other economically disadvantaged students.14 Youth who experience school moves due to homelessness often demonstrate worse academic and social outcomes than their residentially-stable peers, including lower vocabulary skills, problem behaviors, and lower college success.15 Not surprisingly, youth homelessness often results in inconsistent school attendance.16 It is extremely challenging for a youth to attend school consistently if his or her basic needs, including housing, food, clothing, and health care are not being met.17 Homeless youth also face additional barriers to school enrollment, including residency requirements, guardianship requirements, delays in transfer of school records, lack of transportation, and lack of immunizations records.18 Without an opportunity to receive an education, homeless children are much less likely to acquire the skills they need to escape poverty as adults.19

Homeless youth who are provided opportunities to participate fully in extracurricular activities  and sports are more connected to school and have better educational outcomes.20 Studies have found that students who participate in extracurricular activities and sports have higher grade-point averages, better attendance records, lower dropout rates, fewer discipline problems, lower rates of drug use and teen pregnancy, and greater success after high school.21 Participation in extracurricular activities and sports also helps build self-esteem and gives students a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and connection to school community.22

Federal and State Laws Ensure that Homeless Youths Have Equal Educational Opportunities

Federal and state law recognize the importance of ensuring that homeless youth have equal educational opportunities.  These laws require that homeless youth must be provided with immediate access and full participation in all extracurricular activities and sports that are available to other students, and forbid regulations or policies that create barriers for homeless youth to participate in those activities.23

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

The federal government enacted the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which states that schools must enroll homeless youth immediately even if the student is unable to provide all of the necessary documents usually required for enrollment.24 Immediate enrollment is defined as attending school and participating fully in school activities, including sports and extracurricular activities.25

McKinney-Vento also requires states and school districts to eliminate barriers to school enrollment and full participation in school activities.26 Accordingly, state and local educational agencies, including athletic associations, must review their policies and practices to ensure they do not create barriers for homeless students, and revise them if they do.27 Homeless students must be exempt from eligibility rules that students cannot meet due to their status as homeless youth, which includes waiving fees and residency requirements.28

Senate Bill 177 and Ed Code 48850

California law also affords specific educational protections to homeless youth.  In 2013, California enacted The Homeless Youth Education Success Act, which was designed to prevent delays or barriers to homeless youth’s ability to participate in all aspects of school, including extracurricular activities and sports.29 Homeless youth are entitled to immediate enrollment in school, and are deemed immediately residentially eligible for interscholastic sports.30 California mandates that educators and advocates “shall work together . . . to ensure that [all foster youth and homeless youth] . . . ha[ve] access to the academic resources, services, and extracurricular and enrichment activities that are available to all pupils, including, but not necessarily limited to, interscholastic sports administered by the California Interscholastic Federation.”31

More Educational Rights of Homeless Youths


Modified Graduation Requirements (Cal. Educ. Code §§ 51225.1, 51225.3): homeless youth who transfer after their second year of high school are exempt from local district graduation requirements and are only required to meet the state graduation requirements if they are not reasonably able to meet the local requirements within four years of high school.  Homeless youth can remain in high school for a fifth year to complete graduation requirements.


Access to Records and Privacy (Cal. Educ. Code §§ 49073, 49076): Unaccompanied youths age 14 and over have the right to access and disclose their school records. Caregivers can also access and disclose records to facilitate enrollment for unaccompanied youth.  Schools cannot disclose homeless youth information without parental consent.


Future Changes: There are several bills currently pending before the California Legislature that would further advance the educational rights of homeless youth: SB 445, SB 252, AB 801, AB 1228.  Check back throughout the legislative season to see the progress of these bills.  See

CIF’s Bylaws Fail to Comply with Federal and State Law: Zach’s Story

Zach’s case demonstrates how the barriers created by CIF Bylaws can have a devastating impact on homeless youth.  Zach lost his mother to cancer when he was 12 years old.  Zach moved in with his father, but the relationship was turbulent and his father was unable to consistently care for him.  He bounced around, living with various family friends in the Redding area.  The loss of his mother and subsequent experiences traumatized Zach. Without a consistent caregiver following his mother’s death, Zach attended school erratically and his grades were near failing.  Zach needed to repeat eighth grade, attended nine schools between 2007 and 2014, and even had two semesters when he did not enroll at all (11th grade fall and 12th grade spring).  Due to this instability, Zach only played sports during ninth grade and part of tenth grade.

In the summer of 2014, Zach was ready to make some positive changes to his life.  He asked a friend he knew from church and a traveling basketball league if he could visit him in Weaverville, with the hope of returning to school and getting his high school diploma.  Zach longed for stability and a “normal” high school experience.  Zach fell in love with Weaverville, and decided to enroll in the local high school, Trinity High.   As an unaccompanied homeless youth, Zach was immediately enrolled in school.

For Zach, part of having a normal high school experience was the opportunity to play sports.   Basketball, in particular, had always provided Zach a solace from his troubles.  After the start of the school year, Zach began exploring the option of playing sports at Trinity High.  The school was supportive, but told him that he needed to demonstrate academic eligibility by earning at least a 2.0 GPA during the first grading period.  So, Zach focused on his studies and earned a 2.9 GPA.

In October, Zach’s school worked with him to submit all the paperwork necessary for him to play sports.  But even after making the grades, Zach still faced a number of barriers to athletic participation due to CIF ‘s Bylaws and process, including: the eight-semester rule, lack of deadlines for approving hardship waivers and transfer paperwork, and shifting academic eligibility requirements.

The Eight-Semester Rule

Because Zach was entering school as a fifth-year senior, he exceeded the eight semesters typically allotted for interscholastic eligibility under CIF bylaws.  Under the bylaw, if a student remains in school more than eight semesters from the start of ninth grade, the student’s school must submit a hardship waiver describing a hardship endured by the student that justifies an extension of interscholastic eligibility.32 A hardship is defined as “an unforeseeable, unavoidable, and uncorrectable act, condition, or event, which causes the imposition of a severe and non-athletic burden upon the student or his/her family.”33

Zach’s hardship waiver was 15 pages long, and included a lengthy timeline detailing Zach’s homelessness and his instability, as well as a statement from one of his caretakers detailing the emotional toll that Zach’s mother’s death took on Zach.  Yet even this documentation was not sufficient for CIF to make a determination on Zach’s eligibility.  CIF repeatedly requested additional information about Zach’s background, and essentially put Zach on trial for being homeless.  Zach’s application was eventually rescinded by the School District’s Superintendent because of minor factual errors and had to be re-submitted with yet more detail.34

No Timelines Regarding Eligibility Determinations

Despite detailed Bylaws that go on for hundreds of pages, CIF’s hardship bylaw lacks a timeline for CIF to make its determination on a hardship waiver.35 The lack of a deadline can have a devastating impact on students, especially homeless and foster youth who often take longer than eight semesters to graduate due to frequent school moves.

In Zach’s case, hardship waiver paperwork submitted in October had yet to be approved three months later.  This delay caused Zach to miss 18 basketball games and left him feeling demoralized and dejected.  But Zach and his advocates were determined to achieve a just outcome and never gave up their efforts to get Zach fully enrolled in school.

Varying Standards of Academic Performance

Under CIF Bylaws, students must maintain a 2.0 GPA during the previous grading period to be academically eligible to play sports.36 However, if a student is applying for eligibility using a hardship waiver, that student must be academically eligible during the previous grading period as well as the semester prior to the onset of the hardship.37

Despite Zach’s 2.9 GPA during the first grading period at Trinity High and an initial finding of academic eligibility, CIF later ruled he was not academically eligible to play sports.38 CIF based this determination on three conflicting – and unlawful – interpretations of the Bylaws.  First, CIF’s Shasta Cascade League asserted that Zach was not academically eligible because of his low GPA in the grading period prior to April 2012, which they alleged was the start of his homelessness.39 Subsequently, CIF Northern Section Commissioner took the position that Zach was academically ineligible because of his grades prior to his enrollment at Trinity High, in the fall of 2013.  Later, CIF’s lawyers argued that Zach was academically ineligible because he did not have a cumulative 2.0 GPA.  All of these interpretations were improper and unlawfully held Zach, as a homeless youth, to a higher standard than other youth.

NCYL Takes Legal Action to Vindicate the Rights of Zach and Other Homeless Students

Success in Court

NCYL began working with Zach in early January 2015 after being contacted by his community supporters and advocates.  After CIF failed to respond to multiple letters and calls urging them to deem Zach eligible for interscholastic sports, NCYL was left with no other option than to take legal action.

On February 3, 2015, the NCYL litigation team of Leecia Welch, Erin Liotta, and Stephanie Krol filed a writ and complaint in Superior Court of Trinity County alleging that the CIF violated state and federal laws by failing to grant Zach a hardship waiver allowing him to participate in sports. The writ and complaint alleged that CIF violated state and federal laws that protect the right of homeless youth to immediately enroll in school and not face barriers to participation in sports.  NCYL also alleged that the CIF violated Zach’s equal protection rights by holding him to a higher standard for meeting academic eligibility than his non-homeless peers.

Two days later, NCYL appeared in court seeking a temporary restraining order.  NCYL requested that the court maintain the status quo by delaying all Trinity High School boys’ varsity basketball games until final judgment was issued on Zach’s writ petition.  Simultaneously, NCYL sought an order shortening time for a full hearing on Zach’s writ so that a resolution could be reached promptly.

On February 5, Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Johnson issued a temporary restraining order against CIF finding that Zach would likely prevail in his allegation that CIF violated his constitutional right to equal protection.  Judge Johnson stated that “[Zach], together with the faculty and administration of Trinity High School, devoted early and substantial efforts to have his hardship waiver approved; and that these efforts to obtain a waiver were foiled repeatedly by [CIF’s] actions presenting obstacles in the way of such approval, all engendering delay, and all based on its varying interpretations of CIF rules in a manner that related peculiarly to [Zach’s] homeless status prior to enrolling at Trinity High School.”40 Judge Johnson ordered that Zach be allowed to play basketball immediately, unless or until CIF could obtain a ruling on the merits in their favor.41 Shortly thereafter, CIF and NCYL reached a settlement in principle that granted Zach athletic eligibility for the remainder of the year and reflected an agreement that CIF and NCYL would work together to amend CIF Bylaws that placed barriers to eligibility for homeless youth.  Discussions between CIF and NCYL regarding Bylaw amendments are ongoing, and NCYL is hopeful that these amendments will be in effect in time for the start of the 2015-16 school year.

Success on the Court
NCYL Legal Team members  Stephanie Krol and Erin Liotta with Zach and Weaverville Coach Jaimie Green

NCYL Legal Team members Stephanie Krol and Erin Liotta with Zach and Weaverville Coach Jaimie Green

Zach finally suited up for his first Trinity High basketball game on February 6, 2015.  The Weaverville community came out in record numbers to watch him play.  When his name was first announced in the starting lineup, Zach received a standing ovation.  His case had been chronicled in local media for weeks, and his David versus Goliath story was featured prominently on the front pages of two local newspapers.

Zach and the Trinity High basketball team won their next eight games and finished the season in second place in the Northern Section. They lost the Section championship by one point in a tense, nail-biting game against Hamilton High with the NCYL legal team cheering them on. Trinity High went on to the Northern California state championship bracket, losing in the second round.  Zach is now focused on getting his high school diploma, and has plans to play basketball for a community college next fall.


Filing a lawsuit against CIF was not a path Zach ever intended to take.  He simply wanted to play the game he loved during his last year in high school.  Instead, he missed out on two-thirds of the basketball season and found himself taking center stage in a legal battle that garnered nearly daily media attention in his community.

CIF has the mandate to ensure that homeless youth do not face barriers to playing sports.   Small changes to CIF Bylaws could make a huge difference to these youth’s access to school athletics, a crucial way for them to forge greater connections to their school communities.


1 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001 – Title X, Part C of the No Child Left Behind Act – Sec. 725, 42 U.S.C. 11434(a)(2).   Unaccompanied youth are those who lack safe, stable housing and are not in the care of their families.  42 U.S.C. § 11434(a)(6).
2 Patricia F. Julianelle, The Educational Success of Homeless Youth in California: Challenges and Solutions, p. 8 (Oct. 2007), available at:; California Homeless Youth Project, Youth Homelessness In California: A Quick Overview, available at:  For additional guidance on McKinney Vento, please see: Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, available at:
3 National Center for Homeless Education, Education for Homeless Children and Youth Consolidated State Performance Report Data: School Years 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13, p. 1 (Sept. 2014) available at:
4 Shahera Hyatt, et al., California’s Homeless Students: A Growing Population, California Homeless Youth Project, p. 1, 6 (Sept. 2014) available at:
5 Statistical information regarding homeless youths in California can be found online through Kids Data, available at:,4509031.392449&zoom=1. California’s homelessness among students has been steadily increasing every year, from 220,708 in 2011 to 249,073 in 2012.,2&tf=64,73.
6 Statistical information about on Homeless Public School Students in California is available at:  The number of actual students that are homeless in Trinity County is 215, which is substantially smaller than in other more populous counties. See also, Shahera Hyatt, et al., supra note 4 at 6.
7 Julianelle, supra note 2 at 7.  LGBT youth are over-represented in the homeless youth population; estimates range from seven percent among youth receiving services to 39 percent among street youth. California Homeless Youth Project, Youth Homelessness In California: A Quick Overview, available at: (citing, N.S. Quintana et al., On the Streets: The Federal Response to Gay and Transgender Youth (June 2010), available at
8 California Homeless Youth Project, supra note 7; Root Cause, Improving Outcomes For Homeless Youth, p. 2 (Sept. 2012), available at:; The National Network for Youth, Policy Brief: Runaway And Homeless Youth Act, available at:
9 California Homeless Youth Project, supra note 7; Patricia F. Julianelle, supra note 2 at 8.
10 Id.
11 California Homeless Youth Project, supra note 7.
12 California Homeless Youth Project, supra note 7; The National Network for Youth, Homeless Youth In America: Who Are They?, available at:; Improving Outcomes Root Cause, supra note 8 at 2.
13 The National Network for Youth, supra note 12.
14 Three-fourths of California homeless youth surveyed for the California Research Bureau’s report, Voices from the Street: A Survey of Homeless Youth by Their Peers ( were not in school.
15 See Maya Brennan, The Impact of Affordable Housing on Education: A Research Summary, Center for Housing Policy (May 2011), available at:; Heather Sandstrom and Sandra Huerta, The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development: A Research Synthesis, Urban Institute (Sept. 2013), available at:; ,Arthur J. Reynolds, Chin-Chih Chen, and Janette E. Herbers, School Mobility and Educational Success: A Research Synthesis and Evidence on Prevention, Workshop on the Impact of Mobility and Change on the Lives of Young Children, Schools, and Neighborhoods, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, National Research Council, June 29-30, 2009, Washington, DC, available at:
16 Nell Bernstein and Lisa Foster, Voices from the Street: A Survey of Homeless Youth by Their Peers, p. 61 (March 2008), available at:
17 Nell Bernstein, supra note 16 at 61; Julianelle, supra note 2 at 3.
18 Nell Bernstein, supra note 16 at 61; National Coalition for the Homeless, Education of Homeless Children and Youth (Aug. 2007), available at:
19 National Coalition for the Homeless, supra note 18.
20 According to Alan Sanger, Education Support Liaison at the Trinity County Office of Education, “Sports connect homeless youth to the school community and encourage academic achievement.”
21 National Federation of State High School Associations, The Case for High School Activities (2008), available at:,d.cGU.
22 National Center for Homeless Education at SERVE, Supporting the Education of Unaccompanied Homeless Students, p. 7 (2013), available at:
23 See The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, 42 U.S.C. § 11301 et seq; Cal. Educ. Code § 48850.
24 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(3)(C).  Required documentation for enrollment includes: school records, proof of guardianship, birth certificate, immunization records, and proof of residency.
25 42 U.S.C. §11434A(1).
26 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(1)(I), (g)(7).
27 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(1)(I), (g)(7).
28 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(1)(I), (g)(7); National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, The Most Frequently Asked Questions on the Education Rights of Children and Youth in Homeless Situations, p. 23 (Nov. 2009), available at:
29 Specifically, Education Code section 48850(a)(1) states: “It is the intent of the Legislature to ensure that all pupils in foster care and those who are homeless, as defined by federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. Sec. 11301 et. seq.), have a meaningful opportunity to meet the challenging state pupil academic achievement standards to which all pupils are held.”
30 Cal. Educ. Code § 48850(a)(3)(A); Cal. Educ. Code § 48204.1(d), (e); specific statutory language mandates immediate enrollment “even if the child or youth is unable to produce records normally required for enrollment, such as previous academic records, medical records, proof of residency, or other documentation.” See also, Shahera Hyatt, et al., supra  note 4 at 2.
31 Cal. Educ. Code § 48850(a)(1).
32 NSCIF Bylaw 204.1 requires that a student’s request to waive the eight-semester limitation must be written by the school principal to the president of the school’s local NSCIF league, which for Trinity is the Shasta Cascade League (hereinafter “the League”). The league then decides whether to grant the waiver, and the documentation is sent to the NSCIF Commissioner for final approval.  NSCIF Bylaws are available at:
33  NSCIF Bylaw 213.
34 Under NSCIF Bylaw 204.1, applications for interscholastic eligibility are completed by the principal and submitted to the league president.  There are no provisions in the NSCIF bylaws that permit a superintendent to intervene in the application process of a student applying for interscholastic eligibility.
35 The NSCIF is the only CIF Section that requires league approval of a hardship waiver.  Furthermore, none of the applicable NSCIF bylaws employed in Zach’s case, NSCIF Bylaw 204 or 213, include a timeline for the decision-making by the league or Commissioner.
36 According to NSCIF Bylaw 205.1(A), “in order to be eligible, any student … must have achieved an unweighted 2.0 grade-point average, on a 4.0 scale, … at the conclusion of the previous grading period.”
37 NSCIF Bylaw 204(C)(2)(b)(iv).
38 On January 21, 2015, the Shasta-Cascade League, a division of NSCIF, issued a ruling stating that Zach’s application for eligibility be denied because “Zach’s academic transcripts reflects a cumulative GPA under 2.0 for the semester immediately prior to his enrollment at Trinity High School for the fall of 2014.”
39 NSCIF Bylaw 204.C(2)(b)(iv).
40 Sanchez v. Cal. Interscholastic Fed’n, No. 15CV016 (Super. Ct. Trinity Cnty. Feb. 5, 2015) (order granting temporary restraining order), p. 4.
41 Id. at 5.