A group of refugee students is suing a Pennsylvania school district, claiming that even though they were given a free public education, they were dumped in an inferior school and denied the quality alternative they deserve.
The six students, ages 17 to 21, are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in the class-action lawsuit filed in federal court.
Originally from Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burma, the refugees claim the School District of Lancaster obstructed their attempts to enter J.P. McCaskey High School and instead sent them to Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school described by their attorneys as an educational “dead-end,” PennLive reported.
“[The] Plaintiffs are refugees who have fled war, violence, and persecution from their native countries,” the lawsuit says. “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.”
In Lancaster, a place with a long history of welcoming refugees and among the highest annual arrival numbers in the state, school district officials are accused of having repeatedly denied or delayed enrollment for refugee students in violation of the federal Equal Education Opportunities Act. The suit also claims district administrators routinely sent older refugee students to a “disciplinary school” that subjected them to bullying, intense security protocols and an accelerated learning program that runs counter to conventional wisdom on the subject.
Qassim Hassan, a Somali refugee, told the court that Phoenix Academy “makes me hate the school and hate the system. It makes me feel bad.”
“I did not find the school that I deserved,” he said through an interpreter.
Phoenix Academy “provides an intensive remedial program (focus on math and literacy skill development and growth) for students in grades 6-8 coupled with an accelerated graduation program for students in grades 9-12,” according to the school’s website.
“Our clients have already experienced much trauma and loss before arriving in this country,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “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.”
Khadidja Issa was another one of the students who testified about her educational experience. Issa arrived in Pennsylvania with her family in 2015 from Chad after fleeing their home in Sudan when she was 5.
“We came to get a better education,” she told the courtroom.
School district officials disagreed with the lawsuit’s claims.
“[The District] believes the lawsuit is without merit,” Superintendent Damaris Rau said in a statement. “We are confident we are doing an excellent job supporting our refugee students who often come to school with little or no education.”
Sharon O’Donnell, an attorney for the district, argued in court that “Phoenix Academy is not the prison that some people would make it out to be.”
“They’re actually getting more focused instruction away from the distractions of the larger McCaskey High School,” she said. “If they 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.”
The refugees are seeking an injunction allowing them to transfer to and ultimately graduate from McCaskey High School.
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