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Equity & Diversity

Refugees in Pa. District Denied Access to Adequate Education, Lawsuit Argues

By Corey Mitchell — July 19, 2016 2 min read
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The American Civil Liberties Union and Education Law Center have filed a lawsuit against the Lancaster, Pa., schools, claiming the district barred English-language-learner refugee students from attending traditional high schools because of their age.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the suit alleges that the older ELL students were turned away or forced to attend a privately operated alternative school rather than one of the district’s regular public high schools, often without explaining their decisions to students or their parents.

The Philadelphia-based law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP will also represent the plaintiffs in the case— six refugee students who hail from Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Sudan.

“Our clients have already experienced much trauma and loss before arriving in this country. Rather than helping them make the difficult adjustment by providing educational resources required by law, the school district has denied them an education completely or forced them into an alternative school, where they are often bullied and don’t learn,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a prepared statement.

The Lancaster schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Federal law prohibits schools from discouraging or denying enrollment, particularly to older students. An influx of refugee and undocumented students in recent years led the U.S. Department of Education to issue guidance reminding school districts of their legal obligations when it comes to undocumented students. Students are eligible for public school education until age 21.

This is the third federal lawsuit civil rights has filed in the past 15 months on the issue, with previous cases filed against school districts in Utica, N.Y., and Collier County, Fla. The case in Utica has been settled.

On the surface, the Lancaster schools may seems like an unlikely target for the legal action. The district has a significant number of experience educating refugee and English-language-learner students. Almost 17 percent of the district’s students are English-learners and roughly 4.5 percent are refugees, according to data from the district.

The district also has a school designed to address the needs of students who are new to the country and speak little, or no, English. But most of the students enrolled there could be Spanish speakers; 60 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic, data show.

The Lancaster lawsuit could be an attempt to secure better services for a particular type of refugee English-learner: those who don’t speak Spanish.

Khadidja Issa, an 18-year-old refugee from Sudan who speaks Fur and Arabic, is the lead plaintiff in the case. According to the ACLU, neither Issa nor her mother could speak, read, or understand English when they arrived in the United States in fall 2015.

The lawsuit alleges that the Lancaster district refused to enroll her for months before relenting and allowing her to enroll at the Phoenix Academy, where she has no access to interpreters or documents that are translated into a language she and her mother can read.

Here’s a look at the legal filing:

ACLU Complaint

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.