August 20, 2016
A Pennsylvania school district is being sued for allegedly forcing refugees to attend schools that were unfit to serve their unique educational needs, instead sending them to receive boot camp-style discipline at a private academy.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania announced earlier this summer the federal lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for "illegally refusing" to enroll six refugees at a regular public high school or instead diverting them to the academy.
According to the suit, the refugees are aged 17-21 and hail from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma.
English to those students is a secondary language, and they would benefit from a program designed specifically for international students offered at J. P. McCaskey, the district's main public high school, the lawsuit contends.
Despite this, the students were either barred from enrolling or sent to Phoenix Academy, a "transitional" school run by a private company, Camelot Education, according to the ACLU.
The lawsuit says these practices violate the refugees' right under Pennsylvania law to a free public education.
Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rao told Central Pennsylvania's NPR affiliate that Phoenix is designed to accommodate students like the refugees:
"The intention of the Phoenix program" Rao said, "is to accelerate kids' credits so that they can get back — and we have tons of kids who go back to [the public high school] McCaskey — and graduate on time. So, I think they're doing a really good job and it's a shame that it's come to this."
One social worker disagrees on Phoenix’s performance. In court Wednesday, Elise Chesson, who works for a Lancaster refugee services program, described the conditions at Phoenix as comparable to those at a detention center.
In May, Utica School District in New York settled a similar lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
The same district was sued by the state attorney general in 2015 for alleged bias against refugees in enrollment policies. That suit was also settled, and the district promised to revise its policies.