Refugee Students in Minneapolis Lose Court Battle

By Mark Walsh — August 25, 2010 2 min read
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A group of Ethiopian and Somali refugee students who allegedly received inadequate educational services from an alternative high school in Minneapolis are not entitled to relief under federal and state civil rights laws, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Thirteen students who attended Abraham Lincoln High School, an alternative school run by a private group under contract to the Minneapolis school district, sued under the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a Minnesota civil-rights law. All were natives of Ethiopia or Somalia and had spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya before arriving in Minneapolis between the ages of 14 and 20 with little formal education and little ability to speak English, according to court papers.

At different times from 1999 to 2006, the students attended Abraham Lincoln High, which was operated by the Institute for New Americans. The students lodged a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education in 2005, alleging that the school was not meeting their needs. A state investigation found that the school was not adequately identifying students in need of special education, that its English-language learners had only a 17 percent pass rate on state tests (compared with 40 percent for all ELLs statewide), and that a relatively high proportion of its students were “aging out,” or reaching age 21 without graduating.

The school district agreed to a plan for corrective action, court papers say. In 2005, the thirteen plaintiffs filed their civil rights suit, citing the state investigation as part of their evidence that the school and the Minneapolis district were discriminating against them on the basis of national origin.

A federal district court found that there was no strong evidence of intentional national origin bias by school or district officials. The district court also found that the school district was not violating the law by delaying special education testing for some of the students for at least three years after they were in school, on the theory that officials could not reliably assess whether a student needed special education services until the student had been in the country long enough to learn English.

The students appealed, but in an Aug. 25 opinion in Mumid v. Abraham Lincoln High School, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants.

“A policy that treats students with limited English proficiency differently than other students in the district does not facially discriminate based on national origin,” the appeals court said in rejecting the students’ Civil Rights Act claims.

The appeals court rejected claims under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act because it said no injunctive relief was available to the 13 studdents because they no longer attend the school, and no monetary damages are available under the EEOA at all.

It is a bit unclear whether Abraham Lincoln High School continues to operate in the same manner. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ Web site does not list the school.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.