Refugees Sue School District Over Treatment

     LANCASTER, Pa. (CN) – The Lancaster school district is denying refugee children from war-torn countries educational opportunities guaranteed to them by law, the American Civil Liberties Union claims in a federal lawsuit.
     The class action was filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
     The lead plaintiffs, “refugees who have fled war, violence, and persecution from their native countries of Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma,” are between the ages of 17 and 21 and have been relegated to the school district’s “alternative” Phoenix Academy rather the McCaskey High School, which offers “full range of curricular and extracurricular programs and activities, including access to the International School,” the lawsuit says.
     According an ACLU press release, “the problem of school districts refusing to enroll [limited-English-proficiency students] students or placing them in substandard 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.”
     Both of those prior suits have recently been settled.
     “Having finally escaped their turbulent environment to resettle in America, these young immigrants yearn to learn English and get an education so they can make a life for themselves,” the complaint says.
     “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” said the ACLU of Pennsylvania in written statement.
     The suit alleges the plaintiffs are English language learners who do not have access to appropriate programs curriculum and are subject to bullying at Phoenix Academy, which is “an alternative high school for ‘underachieving’ students operated for SDOL on a contract basis by Camelot Education, a private company that is known for operating disciplinary schools.”
     “Phoenix is run more like a disciplinary school than a traditional public high school. Students are subject to pat-down searches, prohibited from bringing belongings into or out of the school, forced to wear colored shirts that correspond with behavior and not allowed to wear watches or jewelry, expected to ‘confront’ peers ‘exhibiting negative behavior,’ and can be subjected to physical and even violent restraint, as part of the school’s disciplinary policy,” the complaint says.
     The bolster its argument, the ACLU points to the 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols, which stated “There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.”
     “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, in a statement on the organization’s website.
     Kelly Burkholder, the Lancaster School District’s coordinator of community relations, said in an email to Courthouse News that “The district believes the complaint is without merit and looks forward to providing our students with educational services that meet their individual needs consistent with the legal obligations imposed by state and federal law.
     “The district will continue to be on the cutting edge in developing programs that are unique, such as establishing our Refugee Welcoming Center, after school programs and special summer programs for refugee students,” Burkholder continued.
     The ACLU filed the suit with co-council The Education Law Center, and Pepper Hamilton LLP, which is providing pro bono counsel.

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