Federal judges mulling Lancaster school appeal of refugee ruling

    Vic Walczak

    Vic Walczak

    About 17,000 of the refugees arriving each year in the U.S. are children, yet their education — in particular, how public schools might accommodate them — plays a surprisingly minor role in placing families.

    Federal law says public schools have to adjust to meet any number of students’ varying needs, including overcoming language barriers.

    But that doesn’t always happen.

    A few lawsuits have been filed in recent years on behalf of student refugees suffering the consequences of systematic shortcomings.

    Schools have settled out of court in most cases.

    Not Lancaster.

    Decision and appeal

    Lawyers for the Pennsylvania ACLU and Philadelphia-based Education Law Center sued the School District of Lancaster last summer.

    The lawsuit claims that, despite the city’s robust tradition of resettlement, several teenage refugees waited months to enroll in public school. Ultimately, they were denied outright or diverted to magnet school Phoenix Academy, which has less support for nonnative English speakers than mainstream McCaskey High School.

    Judge Edward Smith ruled in August that the district must let the students choose whether to remain at Phoenix or switch to McCaskey’s International School (designed for first-year students with limited English proficiency).

    The decision, which Lancaster is appealing, came quickly in an attempt to get the students named in the case settled before the start of the school year.

    Smith’s expected to hear arguments on other matters in the case in a couple months, including broadening his original ruling to apply to more students than those named in the original complaint and installing a monitor at the school district.

    In the meantime, a judicial panel in Philadelphia is considering Lancaster’s appeal.

    Legal fees have been building

    Whether the district’s on the hook for any expenses depends on how the case turns out.

    Defense attorneys’ bills are at about $150,000 so far, according to the district’s business administrator Matthew Przywara. The ACLU’s costs are approaching $2 million.

    But Lancaster’s insurer has indicated it won’t pay out more than $100,000 for this lawsuit, district officials say.

    Although the school district’s insurance policy covers up to $1 million per year in damages, it doesn’t apply to certain cases (including those seeking non-monetary relief such as this one), according to both Pryzwara and the policy obtained through Keystone Crossroads’s Right-to-Know request.

    Przywara says the board supports continuing to fight the case. 

    Officials issued a statement recently stating they didn’t think they’d have to pay costs incurred to bring the lawsuit. The refugees’ lawyers aren’t asking their clients for any money, but make it clear in initial court filings they’d try to get paid if they win the lawsuit.

    Case background

    School district officials say Phoenix’s fast-track curriculum aims to get high-risk students a diploma before they drop or age out, or count against the district’s graduation rate.

    And these students fit that description: they face speak little or no English, typically have a disrupted educational background, if they have one at all, and might feel pressure to work to help support their families, since adult refugees’ initial jobs tend to be low wage.

    They’re also typically older than an average incoming high school student. So they have no more than four years to get through high school before they turn 21, when students are no longer entitled to free public education in Pennsylvania.

    “If a child comes to this country, a child who is 15, 16 years old, with no credits, it’s practically impossible for them to graduate. And that’s our goal,” says Superintendent Damaris Rau.

    But Phoenix wasn’t the right place for the students named in the lawsuit, their lawyers say. The school’s condensed coursework taught in an unfamiliar language rendered the content next to meaningless for these students, according to court testimony from the refugees, resettlement workers, an education expert and current and former teachers.

    The district agrees to “offer language translation services to [English as a Second Language] students as provided to other schools in the school district” in its contract with Camelot Education, according to the document provided in response to a Right-to-Know request.

    Camelot, the private company running Phoenix, agrees to offer an ESL program and includes a budget in the contract providing for two certified teachers. 

    But the contract doesn’t get into details (how much time should be dedicated to ESL, for example) beyond that.


    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal