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Federal lawsuit filed against Lancaster district for its treatment of older immigrant students

They are denied enrollment or placed in an alternative school, the complaint says, rather than getting help with English.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

UPDATED 7/29 with response from Camelot Education

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that the School District of Lancaster, Pa., puts older immigrant students with limited English skills in a privately operated alternative school rather than in its regular high school — or refuses to enroll them at all.

The complaint says that the district fails to provide these students with bilingual classes or with instruction in English as a second language, as mandated by federal and state law. State law requires that every person from age 6 to 21 has the right to a "free public education" in the child’s district of residence.

The plaintiffs include six refugees, from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma. The suit was filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center (ELC), and pro bono counsel from Pepper Hamilton LLP.

The lead plaintiff, Khadidja Issa, is an 18-year-old refugee from Sudan who arrived in September 2015. The Lancaster School District at first would not enroll her at all, but then placed her at Phoenix Academy, where she is not getting help with English and where nobody speaks the languages she does, Arabic and Fur, an indigenous language of Darfur, Sudan.

The plaintiffs are seeking to make this a class action.

In an emailed response, a Lancaster district spokesperson said the district "believes the complaint is without merit."

Lancaster "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," said the statement. "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."

The complaint alleges that the district would not enroll the plaintiffs in its McCaskey High School, even though the school has a transitional program for English language learners who have just arrived in the country. Students who insisted on placement were diverted to Phoenix Academy, operated by Camelot Education, which the complaint says "is run more like a disciplinary school" with pat-down searches, bans on personal items including books and cash, and color-coded shirts corresponding to behavior records.

Phoenix Academy does not provide any transitional programming for students who don’t speak English and does not have any certified ESL teachers. Many of the English language learners drop out due to bullying "in a severe authoritarian environment" that is especially unsuited to refugees who have already endured war, violence, and persecution, according to the complaint.

"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," Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at ELC, said in a statement. "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 life in their new country."

Camelot, in a statement, said that Phoenix Academy, contrary to the what the ACLU lawsuit alleges, has three certified ESL teachers. The lawsuit’s claims "needlessly damage the reputation of a school whose total mission is the uplifting of vulnerable students’ lives," the statement said.

Camelot said its mission "is to help students who are over-aged and under-credited graduate by the time they turn 21" and that Phoenix Academy "provides a supportive school environment with small class sizes" and a social skills curriculum that helps immigrants "with socialization in their new country," as well as afterschool and summer programs.

"Although the majority of newly-arriving immigrants attend the district’s regular high school, the district has made sure these specific students get the extra attention they require and deserve,” Camelot said.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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