PHILADELPHIA (CN) — In the shadow of a national battle over President Donald Trump’s crackdown on Muslim immigrants, the Third Circuit upheld an injunction Tuesday against a Pennsylvania school district found to be likely violating the rights of refugee students.
The American Civil Liberties Union brought the Lancaster School District to court this past summer, suing on behalf of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma.
Ranging in age from 17 to 21, these students are forced into an alternative high school called the Phoenix Academy, run by disciplinary school operator Camelot Education.
Lancaster appealed after the ACLU secured an injunction last year to have the students transferred to the McCaskey High School’s International School, which has programs better suited for English language learners like the named plaintiffs.
Agreeing that the ACLU is likely to prove violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, or EEOA, a three-judge panel affirmed Tuesday.
“We agree with the District Court that without preliminary relief, irreparable harm was likely for these plaintiffs, who would have remained in Phoenix’s accelerated, non-sheltered program for at least the duration of this litigation,” Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote for the court. “The plaintiffs already demonstrated a reasonable probability that Phoenix’s programs are unsound for them and fail to actually overcome their language barriers under the EEOA. And these plaintiffs, all SLIFE [students with limited or interrupted formal education], must overcome uniquely difficult challenges to learning. Time is of the essence: Their eligibility to attend public school in Pennsylvania is dwindling. We recognize that a sound educational program has power to ‘change the trajectory of a child’s life,’ while even a ‘few months’ in an unsound program can make a ‘world of difference in harm’ to a child’s educational development,
The 46-page ruling notes that four of the named plaintiffs are enrolled at McCaskey because of the injunction.
“They say they’re ‘flourishing,’” Fisher wrote. “Jockeying them back to Phoenix now would thus cause them greater harm, as the school district conceded during oral argument. Given these factors, we are satisfied the plaintiffs showed a likelihood of irreparable harm absent this injunction.”
Enumerating the differences between the McCaskey and Phoenix, the ruling notes that the latter enforces stringent security measures, “including daily pat-down searches.”
“Phoenix bars its students from bringing in or out any personal belongings, like backpacks, food, books, and even homework,” the opinion states. “And a strict dress code is in place. Based on a hierarchical system, students are rewarded with different colored shirts as they demonstrate improved behavior.”
Though the accelerated learning system in place at Phoenix makes it possible for students to graduate in half the time it would take a traditional high school, an expert witness for the refugees testified the accelerated curriculum at Phoenix is “totally inappropriate” for English language learners.
The students meanwhile testified that they were unable to follow the class discussion at Phoenix. Despite “readily apparent difficulties conversing in English,” at least one of the refugees graduated near the top of his class, the District Court found.
Because the injunction is only preliminary, the District Court must still decide the case on the merits.
"The ruling has no bearing on our ongoing commitment to serve and educate our refugee students in an effective and lawful manner," Kelly Burkholder, a spokeswoman for Lancaster schools, said in an email. “We look forward to a full trial at which the merits of our educational practices can be thoroughly presented.”
Against the backdrop of this ruling, the ACLU has banded together with states, businesses and others across the country for a new threat out of the White House to refugee rights.
The ACLU posted a statement from Maura McInerney, an attorney for the students with Education Law Center.
“This case is more important now than ever,” McInerney said. “It affirms the right of immigrant and refugee students to a meaningful education that overcomes language barriers. The decision sends a clear and unequivocal message to all public schools that they have a duty to provide sound and effective English language services. Many immigrant students, particularly those newly arrived in the U.S. with limited prior education have unique and significant language needs that must be proactively addressed. They cannot languish in classrooms where they cannot access the curriculum.
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