Despite a Sick Note, One Student Faces Expulsion from School and Ireland

In the corner of Nayara Santos’ bedroom is a pile of bags, already packed.

She has to go back to Brazil, she says. It means leaving her fiancé from Croatia behind. They can only afford one €800 ticket.

“I’m just at home depressed. My fiancé tries to get me to go out or do exercise at home,” says Santos.

Last month, Santos was expelled from her English-language school, the National Employee Development (NED) Training Centre, for missing classes. She was unwell, she says – backed up by a doctor’s note.

Under rules set by the Department of Justice, schools like this may expel students if they’ve missed more than 15 percent of classes – or more than 75 percent in the first six weeks – and must report them to the immigration authorities.

But there seems to be little due process or chance to appeal for those, like Santos, who feel that their expulsion was unfair and came with no warnings.

The NED Training Centre is just following Department of Justice rules for expulsions, says David Russell, the school’s director. “We’re expected to be strict, the department wants us to be strict.”

No Warnings

School expulsion policies should be fair to students and clearly outlined, says the Irish National Immigration Service (INIS) website.

Expulsion policies should almost always be progressive, it also says, “with the student receiving a number of warnings before the expulsion step is taken”.

Santos got no warning that she was going to be expelled and that was unfair, she says.

Poor mental health and panic attacks led her to miss classes, she says. A doctor’s note, which she gave to the school after she got expelled, says she “was unfit for work/college”.

She was taking medication prescribed by a doctor in Brazil, says Santos.

After she was expelled, she got a note from a Dublin doctor. She would have done that earlier if she’d been warned about her attendance, Santos says.

Her contract with the school, which she signed without really reading, says it can expel students without notice. “But it’s unfair,” she says.

If a student’s attendance falls below 85 percent, the school reserves the right to “expel the student without issuing all four warnings”, says the contract. (It’s unclear at what stage they would usually get four warnings.)

However, there seem to be different guidelines in different places on what warnings students can expect.

A school handbook says that students who miss classes get a written warning and if they need a second, then “the student’s attendance may be reported to GNIB”, the Garda National Immigration Bureau.

Russell, the director of the NED Training Centre, says the student handbook is not up-to-date and he is going to update it in the coming weeks. It’s “more of a general guideline than a bible”.

Students generally get a notice if their attendance is low, Russell says. But “if a student enrolled today and we won’t see him for a month or two”, they reserve the right to let them go without warning, he said.

Russell says he can’t comment on individual cases.

Sometimes student advisors might forget to get in touch with a student though, he says. “Advisors deal with hundreds of students. One student might slip through the crack.”

Russell says it takes time to check that doctors’ notes are real. “Some students have cheated in the past, doctored the notes to suit themselves, so we have to go about verifying these.”

Santos says her note is real. But an email to her from the school says her expulsion is “irreversible”, and that they have already told the immigration authorities that she has been expelled.

“You will need to provide your medical note in immigration if you wish to renew your visa,” says the email.

Santos is worried about the knock-on effect of this, she says. “I wanted to apply for university, but immigration can deny my visa because of this.”

A Technical Glitch

When Eduardo Fabian Vallejo got expelled from NED Training Centre last month, it was out of the blue too, he says. “One day I woke up and I was expelled, no warnings, no emails, nothing.”

He had a medical note saying he was undergoing psychiatric treatment that interfered with his ability to focus in class, he says. “I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety.”

He’s unsure how many classes he’s missed.

On 27 January, the NED Training Centre sent an “expulsion notice” to the GNIB, telling them Vallejo had been kicked out.

“This student is aware that this directly affects the conditions of their visa for this country,” says the notice.

Vallejo reached out to the school. The expulsion was a mistake stemming from a technical glitch, the school admin said in an email.

Russell, the school director, wrote to apologise to Vallejo, saying he should have gotten warnings before any expulsion.

“This mistake occurred due to an electronic clerical error on our computer system. In this instance we will revoke the expulsion notice,” Russell says, in his email.

Vallejo is now re-enrolled

What Process?

According to the INIS website, when it comes to expulsions, “the student should have recourse to some form of appeal or review”.

The student NED Training Centre handbook doesn’t mention any procedure for that.

At the end of each semester, student attendance records are submitted to GNIB, and GNIB rather than the NED Training Centre will make the final call about the validity of the reasons students provide for missing classes, says the handbook.

Would the NED Training Centre re-enrol a student whose reason for missing class was verified by immigration authorities?

“Of course,” Russell says. “If immigration tells us a student has valid reasons, we take them back in. They are the bosses of language schools, really.”

But he says that’s rare. The last time immigration officers asked them to take someone back was two years ago, he says.

Santos heard about Vallejo getting back and felt a glimmer of hope, she says.

Aside from her medical note, there were other issues at play, too. INIS guidelines say that schools should not expel students close to finishing their programme – and hers, which she joined in October, is due to wrap up in April.

The guidelines don’t say how close is close though.

In any case, nothing changed for her. “When they said your problem is now immigration, for me, I don’t know, it felt ridiculous,” says Santos.

“I never got any notice about my attendance, but I know some people did,” she says.

Telling Immigration

Schools with eligible courses for learners from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA), are “required to inform students that they do not meet the attendance requirements”, says a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.

“They are also required to communicate this information to immigration authorities,” the spokesperson said.

The NED Training Centre is just following government rules, says Russell.

For the last three years, schools have had to send in students’ attendance records to immigration authorities weekly, says Russell. “They want to see if they’ve been a good student.”

“We get requests on individual students from immigration,” Russell says.

Schools must follow INIS guidelines to qualify for the Interim List of Eligible Programmes (IELP), which allows them to enrol non-EEA students, who often make up the bulk of their pupils.

What happens to non-EEA students after they get expelled? “Their immigration status is liable to be revoked,” the department’s spokesperson said.

But the final decision about their fate rests with immigration officers, who “take all factors into account”, they said.

Russell says the erroneous removal won’t undermine Vallejo’s immigration records.

Checks and Balances

It is “forbidden” to use hurried expulsions “as a means of freeing up more classes for future enrolment”, says the INIS website.

Russell says the NED Training Centre has never done that. “We care deeply about our students, they are our customers, and we want to make our customers happy,” he says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it doesn’t know how many expulsion letters it has received from IELP institutions in the past three years. “Unfortunately, statistics are not maintained in this manner.”

Both the NED Training Centre’s student handbook and contract say that expelled students who had a low attendance rate won’t get a refund.

In 2016, an expelled student took a case to the small claims court, challenging an unnamed private English-language school for a refund. The lawsuit failed.

Santos has paid €1,250 in school fees.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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