LANCASTER - The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, and pro bono counsel Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a federal lawsuit today 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.
Under Pennsylvania law, every child aged 6 through 21 has the right to a free public education in that child’s school district of residence. Under federal and state law, school districts are obligated to provide students whose primary language is not English with appropriate bilingual or English as a second language (ESL) instruction and language supports.
“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,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
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.
According to the complaint, Phoenix Academy is run more like a disciplinary school than a traditional public high school. Students are subject to pat-down searches, prohibited from bringing belongings—including books, papers, bags, food, cash over $10, or cell phones—into or out of the school, forced to wear colored shirts that correspond with behavior, expected to “confront” peers “exhibiting negative behavior” and keep logs tallying these confrontations, and can be subjected to physical restraint, as part of the school’s disciplinary policies. Phoenix Academy does not offer any special transitional programs for students who are new to the country and do not speak English fluently, and does not have any certified ESL teachers.
Many immigrant LEP students placed at Phoenix drop out because the district does not provide them with sufficient supports to overcome language barriers to enable them to learn the core curriculum, and because of unchecked, persistent bullying in a severe, authoritarian environment that is particularly ill-suited for refugees.
“We are asking the court to uphold the clear right of these children to a meaningful and equal education in their few remaining school years—to give them the chance to learn English and build essential skills and knowledge,” said Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center. “By refusing to enroll these students or placing them in an inferior educational program that cannot meet their language and learning needs, the district deprives them of the opportunity to make a successful a life in their new country.”
The lead plaintiff in the case is Khadidja Issa, an 18-year-old refugee from Sudan who arrived in the U.S. in September 2015. When she and her mother arrived in the United States, neither spoke, read, wrote, or understood English. SDOL initially refused to enroll Issa in any district school. After several months SDOL relented but forced Issa to attend Phoenix Academy. Issa wants badly to learn English but has not been able to accomplish that goal at Phoenix. Issa regularly feels “scared” and “like a prisoner” due to the environment at Phoenix. No one at Phoenix speaks Fur or Arabic—the two languages Issa understands—and Phoenix staff have never employed a qualified interpreter or translated any documents to help her understand anything happening at school.
In addition to the complaint, plaintiffs also filed a motion to certify the case as a class action.
The problem of school districts refusing to enroll LEP students 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 case is Issa v. School District of Lancaster. The students are being represented by Witold J. Walczak, Molly Tack-Hooper, and Michelin Cahill of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Maura McInerney, Kristina Moon, and Alex Dutton, of the Education Law Center; Eric Rothschild, Kathleen Mullen, Megan Morley, and Kaitlin M. Gurney 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
More information about plaintiffs’ counsel can be found at: