Issa v. School District of Lancaster

A lawsuit alleging that the School District of Lancaster (SDOL) has been illegally refusing to enroll older immigrant students with limited English proficiency (LEP) or diverting them to an inferior, privately operated disciplinary school, rather than allowing them to attend the district’s regular high school.

Court/Assoc.: U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Attorneys/Firms: Witold J. Walczak, Molly Tack-Hooper, Michelin Cahill (ACLU of Pennsylvania); Maura McInerney, Kristina Moon, Alex Dutton (Education Law Center); Eric Rothschild, Kathleen Mullen, Megan Morley, Kaitlin M. Gurney (Pepper Hamilton LLC); Seth Kreimer (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, and pro bono counsel Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a federal lawsuit on July 19, 2016 alleging that the School District of Lancaster (SDOL) has been illegally refusing to enroll older immigrant students with limited English proficiency (LEP) or diverting them to an inferior, privately operated disciplinary school, rather than allowing them to attend the district’s regular high school. The plaintiffs include six refugees aged 17-21 from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma who have fled war, violence, and persecution in their native countries.

According to the complaint, the school district has refused to enroll the plaintiffs at McCaskey, the regular public high school, even though it has a transitional program called the “International School, which is specifically designed to address the needs of LEP students who are new to the country. Instead, the district rejects their enrollment completely or, if they persist, assigns them to Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school for “underachieving” students run by a private company, Camelot Education.

A preliminary injunction hearing in the case began on August 16, 2016 and ended on August 22, 2016.

On August 26, 2016, the judge ordered that the district immediately allow refugee students to enroll in the district’s normal high school. The judge also ordered that the district assess the students’ language proficiency and provide them with appropriate language supports to enable them to participate in their education.

On September 2, 2016, the school district appealed the preliminary injunction order. On September 13, the district filed motions asking the court of appeals to expedite their appeal and to stay the preliminary injunction pending appeal. 

On September 16, 2016, the plaintiffs filed an emergency motion asking the district court to extend its August 26 preliminary injunction to protect all English Language Learner immigrant students aged 17-21 against the district’s continuing practices of delaying the enrollment of older immigrant students and denying them admission to the district’s regular high school.

On September 21, 2016, the Court of Appeals denied the School District’s motion to stay the preliminary injunction order, and granted the motion to expedite the appeal.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held oral argument on December 5, 2016, with Vic Walczak arguing for the plaintiffs.  On January 30, 2017, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order granting a preliminary injunction, ruling that the District’s assignment of refugee students to an accelerated school violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

Blog series from the trial:

Press Release

Legal Documents

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