HARRISBURG – A restrictive and illegal admissions policy at the Harrisburg School District led to the denial of enrollment for several young refugee students during the 2016-17 school year, two civil rights groups charged in a statement today.

The threat of legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Community Justice Project (CJP) led to the eventual enrollment of the students and to the district issuing new guidance on its admissions policy last week that authorizes the district to consider a broader range of factors in admitting students. Lawyers for the organizations fear, however, that the new guidance still does not guarantee admission to all students and leaves open the possibility that the same problems may recur.

The students who were denied enrollment were five and six years old at the time and are recently resettled refugees. They attempted to enroll in school, but the school district refused to admit them.  A February letter threatening legal action from CJP and the ACLU of Pennsylvania resulted in the district admitting four refugee students in March who had either been denied admission or would not have been admitted under the district’s policy.

“Refugees have many obstacles to overcome, starting with their escape from turmoil in their homeland,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “They’re doing their best to settle into a new and strange place, and the district threw up additional roadblocks by denying their kids’ entry into school.

“We hope this situation is resolved. Harrisburg and other districts are on notice that this type of discrimination will not be tolerated.”

Before the new guidance was issued, the district’s policy was to deny enrollment after the tenth day of the school year to students under the age of eight. The district’s policy allowed exceptions only for students previously enrolled in another school program that it deemed compatible with the district’s or for students receiving early intervention services. The four students represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Community Justice Project have now been enrolled.

Marielle Macher, a staff attorney at the Community Justice Project, noted that the policy violated multiple statutes, including the federal Equal Education Opportunity Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Constitution, and Pennsylvania school law.

“It’s baffling that the district did not understand these basic principles of educational and constitutional law, and that lack of understanding led to delays in the start of our clients’ educations,” Macher said.

Last week, the district released a new guidance on the policy but without affirmative language to clarify that students should always be admitted. Instead, the guidance lists factors that the superintendent can consider for enrollment or admissions decisions, such as the student’s limited English proficiency or lack of prior educational opportunities.

“We’ve made clear to the district the illegality of the previous policy, the harm it’s caused to our clients, and the possibility of future legal action if it is not resolved,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This vague and ambiguous guidance is no guarantee the illegal and discriminatory student exclusions will stop.  There will be no more warning letters if the problem recurs. We will just sue.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently settled a federal lawsuit against the nearby School District of Lancaster involving a practice of excluding older refugee students from attending the district’s regular high school.  A U.S. district court judge granted an injunction last August ordering the district to admit the students to the regular high school.  A federal appeals court upheld the decision in January, and the case,Issa v. School District of Lancaster, settled last month.

The clients in this case, who remain anonymous due to their age, are represented by Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Marielle Macher of the Community Justice Project.

More information, including the district’s previous admissions policy, its new guidance, and the letter sent to the district’s superintendent in February, is available at aclupa.org/HarrisburgSD.