LANCASTER, PA – Following a five-day trial, a federal judge ruled today that the School District of Lancaster (SDOL) violated the civil rights of older immigrant students with limited English proficiency (LEP) when it diverted them to an inferior, privately operated alternative school, Phoenix Academy, rather than allowing them to attend the district’s regular high school, McCaskey. The court ruled that it was bound to apply “clear law to clear facts,” and ordered SDOL to immediately transfer eligible plaintiffs to the International School at McCaskey in time for the beginning of the school year on Monday, August 29, 2016. Judge Smith explained: “The plaintiffs are not seeking the creation of a new entitlement, or new and better schools. The plaintiffs are seeking admittance into a program that currently exists, and that is specifically designed for students with their unique language needs.”
The decision resulted from a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, and pro bono counsel Pepper Hamilton LLP on behalf of a group of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Burma who have fled war, violence, and persecution in their native countries.
“Our refugee clients have lived lives of unimaginable hardship, and they are way overdue for a break,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of the lawyers for the students. “We are thrilled the court recognized that school districts have a legal obligation to provide refugees and other immigrants with equal educational opportunities until age twenty-one.”
In addition to transferring plaintiffs Khadidja Issa, Qasin Hassan, Sui Hnem Sung, and Van Ni Iang to the International School at McCaskey, the school district must assess the students’ language and core content proficiencies the first week of school and place them in appropriate ESL and core content classes.
“These students were thrown into a fundamentally inappropriate alternative accelerated program where they languished in classes they didn’t understand. One of our clients was pushed through four years of high school in 18 months, without learning English or acquiring basic skills,” said Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center. “This decision will change their life trajectories by giving them what they were always legally entitled to: the opportunity to learn English and gain the knowledge they desperately need for a successful life.”
“The great thing for these kids is that SDOL already has the kind of program they need to provide a successful and welcoming education – it’s just at McCaskey, the school that Judge Smith has ordered they be sent to, rather than the alternative school that they have been going to,” said Eric Rothschild, one of the attorneys for the students.
The problem of school districts refusing to enroll students with limited English proficiency or placing them in sub-standard programs appears to be increasing around the country. This is the third federal lawsuit filed on this issue in the past fifteen months, with earlier cases filed against school districts in Utica, New York, and Collier County, Florida. The Lancaster case is the first case to go to trial.
The case is Issa v. School District of Lancaster. The students are being represented by Walczak, Molly Tack-Hooper, and Michelin Cahill of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; McInerney, Kristina Moon, and Alex Dutton of the Education Law Center; Rothschild, Kathleen Mullen, Megan Morley, Katrina Long, Kaitlin M. Gurney, and Hedya Aryani at the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLC; and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found at www.aclupa.org/issa
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