Harrisburg officials ultimately admitted the two young children for whom they denied enrollment at first. But policy problems remain, advocates say.
Another Central Pennsylvania school district came under fire recently for how it handles enrolling refugees.
Harrisburg School District officials refused admission to two young children in February.
Then, the students were admitted at the behest of attorneys from the American Civil Union Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Community Justice Project, which has offices in Harrisburg, Reading, and Lancaster.
Harrisburg school officials also changed enrollment guidelines — but not in the way advocates had hoped — prompting the ACLU to release a statement last week critical of the school’s policies.
ACLU attorney Vic Walczak pointed to the district leaving in place a requirement for prior school records — which refugees often leave behind when fleeing violence in their home country.
The new rules in Harrisburg also specify factors to consider enrollment decisions such as a physical illness, homelessness, and English proficiency.
But some board members say they’re concerned and want to revisit the language.
Harrisburg’s solicitor says those criteria aren’t meant to be limiting. They might instead give administrators latitude to waive admission requirements in certain circumstances, such permitting student from families experiencing homelessness to forego proof of residence.
Then there’s Harrisburg’s kindergarten sign-up deadline, which has stoked controversy in the past. The Department of Education has said while rare, the policy is legal.
In this case, it played into the district denying enrollment at first for at least one of the children, who was five years old at the time, according to School Director James Thompson and the ACLU statement.
The ACLU found some refugee students between 17 and 21 years old encountered obstacles enrolling at the School District of Lancaster — but that situation ended in litigation and a consent decree finalized in July.
Initial estimates put the district’s costs at at least $600,000. Subsequently provided updates to legal defense bills and increased insurance premiums put the tab at nearly $900,000, more than half of which will be recurring after next year.