Family wants local district to help pay for private school tuition

  • Former Merrimack Valley student Samuel Alicea poses for a photo on the school’s football field last fall. Alicea’s family is seeking reimbursement for his private school tuition after threats prompted him to transfer from the Penacook high school. Monitor file

  • Samuel Alicea, 16, has a conversation with another audience member during a conversation about race at Merrimack Valley High School on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016.

Monitor staff
Friday, August 25, 2017

The State Board of Education has sent an appeal from a Boscawen family seeking a partial private school tuition reimbursement from their local school district back to the state Department of Education, in hopes that the two sides can keep negotiating.

The case concerns Samuel Alicea, the former Merrimack Valley High School student who made headlines last year when he took a knee during the national anthem at a football game to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

Alicea helped spark a conversation about race in New Hampshire. He was also bullied – especially online – and received death threats, according to his family. Fearing for his safety, his mother, Stephanie Alicea, pulled him out of Merrimack Valley in November and placed him at Tilton School, a private boarding school in Tilton.

“We removed him the day that his friends came to us and said that it would behoove us to get him out of school because children were talking about shooting him,” Caroletta Alicea, his grandmother, told the State Board on Thursday.

At issue is what kind of relief can be sought under the state’s manifest educational hardship statute, which allows districts to reassign students to other schools in special circumstances.

The Aliceas have asked the district to help pay for Samuel’s education at Tilton under the state’s education hardship statute. They want Merrimack Valley to pay the equivalent of the district’s average per-pupil cost back to the family to help defray the cost of attendance at the private school. That cost – about $14,000 – is just a fraction of the private school’s $33,900 tuition. 

Merrimack Valley officials denied their request, saying that the law only contemplates reassigning students to other public schools – not paying for private tuition.

“Everybody acknowledges this is a tough situation. It’s just asking for money through a totally inappropriate process. So you can’t fit this square through this round hole,” the district’s lawyer, Jim O’Shaughnessy, told the board.

The law in question mentions reassigning students to “another school within the same school district; or … another school district within the same school administrative unit; or ... a school district in another school administrative unit.”

The Aliceas argued that while the school district did offer certain accomodations – increased security at games, and a chaperone to accompany Samuel when he traveled between classes – it wasn’t nearly enough to address the escalating hostility directed at Samuel.

“There was no conversation with the adults in the building,” Stephanie Alicea said in an interview.

The district doesn’t dispute that backlash took place, particularly online, but contends they just didn’t realize the extent of it until Samuel had already left. And much of it took place off campus and by non-students, where the school had no jurisdiction, they argued.

Stephanie Alicea said she’d considered public options but decided they wouldn’t provide sufficient relief. Concord High, the nearest public school, had great programming, she told the board – but also shared a building with the regional technical center, which many Merrimack Valley students attend.

The state board ultimately punted on resolving the issue, voting instead to deny the district’s motion to dismiss the matter, and send the case to a department hearing officer to decide whether the family qualified for some sort of relief under the law. And if they do, it’s then incumbent on the district to figure out some sort of remedy, said Drew Cline, the board’s chairman.

“There was never a determination at the state level whether a manifest educational hardship actually existed. If one does exist, the parents’ request for specific relief does not relieve the school board of its responsibility to address the issues,” he said.

It’s unclear what kind of agreement the two parties might come to. The district is adamant it can’t pay for a private school, and the Aliceas don’t want to pull Samuel out of Tilton, where he begins his senior year next week.

But Stephanie Alicea said she’s still glad for the opportunity to keep talking.

“I was overjoyed with this decision to kind of go back to the drawing board,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was clarified to reflect the Aliceas were asking Merrimack Valley to pay the same amount it would to send a student to another public school, not the entire tuition for the Tilton School.