Wednesday, August 31, 2016
A federal district court in Pennsylvania has ordered the School District of Lancaster, PA, to allow older refugee students to attend their local high school. The plaintiffs are six students, who are between 17-21 and who are refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma. They sued the Lancaster district this summer, alleging that the district illegally refused to enroll them at the public McCaskey High School or diverted them to a privately-run alternative school, Phoenix Academy. According to the lawsuit, district employees told the students that they were too old to enroll (not true) or did not have sufficient English proficiency (despite McCaskey having a an international program dedicated to serving transitioning English language learners.) Some of the students' younger siblings were admitted to the district's schools. At Phoenix Academy, the students alleged, they were subject to frequent pat-down searches, restrictions on their dress and activities, and bullying from other students. Moreover, the students alleged that the pace of Phoenix's instruction, which was designed to allow disruptive or older students to earn accelerated credits so that they could graduate faster, was inappropriate for students who had recently arrived in the United States. Phoenix offers no extra curricular programs. While the federal court was taking testimony in the case, an attorney for the Lancaster school district commented that "[i]f [the plaintiffs] don't like the security measures [at Phoenix Academy] then they definitely won't like them at McCaskey, where they have two guards with Tasers and yes, sometimes they have to use them." U.S. District Court Judge Edward G. Smith granted a preliminary injunction ordering the district to allow the students to attend McCaskey, stating that the plaintiffs presented "straightforward legal issues that were ultimately easy to resolve. ... [T]he law is clear: eligible students must be timely enrolled, and efforts to overcome language barriers must be sound and effective." The district is appealing the order.