ACLU files suit against Lancaster School District on behalf of refugees

On July 20, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit, on behalf of several refugees from Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, and Nepal, against the Lancaster School District. In this class-action suit, the ACLU alleged that the District denied the refugees their rights to equal educational opportunities and meaningful public education by turning away older student refugees or enrolling the students in a privately run alternative school. The ACLU allege that this alternative school was operated in the fashion of a disciplinary facility rather than an educational institution. On behalf of the students, the ACLU alleged violations of the Equal Education Opportunity Act, violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, violations of due process, and violations of equal protection.

The ACLU specifically alleged that the Lancaster School District failed to enroll the refugee students in the District’s traditional public high school and instead funneled these refugee students to an alternative high school run by a private company. The ACLU alleged that the private company itself described the school as an institution for students with academic and attendance problems, second chance students, and students who had lost their way. Further, the ACLU alleged that the student to teacher ratio was far higher at the alternative high school in comparison to the traditional high school. Notably, according to the ACLU, 92% of the teachers at the traditional high school were classified as highly qualified teachers and none of the classes at the alternative high school were taught by highly qualified teachers.

Under Pennsylvania law, every individual aged 6 through 21 has the right to a free, public education in that individuals’ School District of residence. The Pennsylvania Public School Code states that a child’s right to be admitted to school may not be conditioned on the child’s immigration status and a school may not inquire regarding the immigration status of the student as part of the admissions process. The Pennsylvania Public School Code further states that every School District shall provide a program for each student whose dominant language is not English for the purpose of facilitating the student’s achievement of English proficiency.  School Districts must also be cognizant of the mandates of Title VI and the Equal Education Opportunity Act, which prohibit recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating against individuals on the basis of, among other things, national origin.  The Equal Education Opportunity Act further prohibits states from denying equal educational opportunities to individuals due to the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.

The status of refugees and immigrants to the United States, both illegal and legal, has been a contentious topic of debate during this recent election cycle. In spite of personal political beliefs, school directors need to be cognizant of both federal and state laws guaranteeing education to their Districts’ residents whatever their immigration or residency status may be. Should questions arise as to your District’s obligation to provide educational services to immigrant or refugee students, please contact Maiello Brungo & Maiello and we will analyze your obligations under applicable federal and state laws to avoid the possibility of similar litigation.

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