Rewind 2017: Court tells Lancaster schools that refugee students get equal access

The legal team and students

Coming to the United States as a refugee should be the ultimate turning point, for the better, in the life of a teenager. The whole “American dream” thing, right? But that dream was delayed for a group of students in Lancaster, Pa., who got a firsthand lesson in the American judicial system.

The School District of Lancaster (SDOL) had a practice of sending older refugee students not to their regular high school, McCaskey, but to an alternative school run by a private company. That school was designed for students with behavioral and academic difficulties that kept them from being placed in the regular classroom.

As the refugee students tried to find their way in a new country, they were subjected to pat-down searches, prohibited from taking belongings — including books, papers, bags, food, cash over $10, or cell phones — into or out of the school, forced to wear colored shirts that corresponded with behavior, expected to “confront” peers “exhibiting negative behavior” and keep logs tallying these confrontations, and could be subjected to physical restraint, as part of the school’s disciplinary policies.

That alternative school had only a few teachers certified in English as a Second Language and had no programming for students transitioning into the United States from another country. In contrast, McCaskey had a specialized program, called the “International School,” designed just for newly arriving foreign students. It had more robust ESL courses, certified teachers, and instruction in all subjects geared towards youngsters who didn’t understand or speak English and typically had never been in such a structured learning environment. It was perfect for the refugee students.

“I thought my head would explode when I first heard about how the Lancaster schools were discriminating against older refugee students by excluding them from McCaskey’s International School,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In July 2016, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Education Law Center, and cooperating counsel from Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of six refugee students from Burma, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia, all between the ages of 17 and 21, arguing that state and federal law demanded that the district place the students at McCaskey.

“These kids understood that education was their path to a decent life,” Walczak said. “Yet the school district was denying them their best, and maybe only, hope of salvaging a productive future.”

In late August 2016, a federal district court agreed with us and ordered the district to enroll our clients at McCaskey. Our six named plaintiff students were transferred immediately to McCaskey, but the district refused to extend the ruling to other similarly situated refugees who we had not named in the suit. The district appealed the injunction, and, in January, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that SDOL had violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

By March, we had reached a settlement with the district that included the option for all immigrant students to transfer to McCaskey immediately, to place all future immigrant students at McCaskey in the International Program, which was renamed the Newcomer Program, and an agreement to not place other immigrant and refugee students at the alternative school.

After the settlement, Walczak, who has worked for the ACLU of Pennsylvania since 1991 and immigrated to the United States as a child, said, “Being able to help these beautiful souls, and accompany them on their first day at the high school, was truly one of the most rewarding moments of my career.”

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.