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Refugee Teens Sue for Educational Rights

The lawsuit claims Lancaster School District diverts non-English speaking immigrants to an alternative high school.  (Scanlan/Wikimedia Commons)
The lawsuit claims Lancaster School District diverts non-English speaking immigrants to an alternative high school. (Scanlan/Wikimedia Commons)
July 20, 2016

LANCASTER, Pa. — Education advocates are suing the Lancaster School District, saying it is violating state and federal law by refusing to enroll immigrant students with limited English proficiency in regular high school.

A lawsuit filed in federal district court Tuesday accused the district of either refusing to enroll 17- to 21-year-old, non-English-speaking refugees at all, or diverting them to a privately operated school for underachieving students. According to Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney with the Education Law Center, vulnerable students with intensive language shortfalls are not getting what they need.

"They're not provided with rigorous ESL (English-as-a-Second-Language programs), to which they are entitled,” McInerney said. "They're also not modifying the curriculum to ensure that these students are receiving instruction."

The district said it is meeting all legal requirements, adding English language instruction is available at the alternative school. The plaintiffs in the suit include refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Myanmar who have fled war, violence and persecution in their home countries.

According to McInerney, J. P. McCaskey High School - the regular district high school in Lancaster - has a special program designed for such students, but those who insist on being allowed to enroll are routinely sent to Phoenix Academy, the alternative school.

"Students at Phoenix Academy are subject to pat-down searches,” McInerney said. “They're prohibited from bringing their belongings into school. They have to wear colored shirts that correspond with their behavior."

She said many immigrant students with limited English end up dropping out of school altogether.

The lawsuit asked the court to ensure that all students with limited English proficiency be allowed to enroll directly in the school district, and that they be allowed to receive their education at the regular high school.

"We think that all of these students are legally entitled to equal educational opportunities, that would be provided at McCaskey,” McInerney said.

Two similar lawsuits have been filed in New York and Florida in the past 15 months.

For more on the lawsuit, visit

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA