Judge rules against Lancaster school district in refugee lawsuit

Sui Hnem Sung (left foreground), 19, and her sister Van Ni Iang, 17, leave federal court in Easton ahead of Qasin Hassan, 17,(left) and Khadidja Issa, 18. They’re among six student refugees represented by a legal team including Education Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union attorneys in a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster over enrollment, translation and other issues. (Emily Previti/WITF)

Sui Hnem Sung (left foreground), 19, and her sister Van Ni Iang, 17, leave federal court in Easton ahead of Qasin Hassan, 17,(left) and Khadidja Issa, 18. They’re among six student refugees represented by a legal team including Education Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union attorneys in a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster over enrollment, translation and other issues. (Emily Previti/WITF)

Logistics are still being worked out, but the district’s spokeswoman says officials will comply with the order and enroll the six teenagers involved in the case at McCaskey High School’s International School when classes start next week.

District officials had been enrolling older teenagers with limited English proficiency at Phoenix Academy, where a private company runs an accelerated credit program for students at risk for dropping out or aging out before graduating.

Six student refugees claimed that practice amounted to denying them equal access to education. They are named in a lawsuit filed less than six weeks ago by a legal team including attorneys from the  American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.

One is Vic Walczak of the ACLU.

“They already have a vaunted school specially for newcomer immigrants,” Walczak said. “So it shouldn’t be a big deal to just transfer them from a school the court ruled was inappropriate for them, into one that seems to be pretty good.”

U.S. District Judge Edward Smith noted placing these students at Phoenix is “counterintuitive,” given the school’s condensed curriculum and practice of mixing all students together for most of the day.

They’d be much better off at the International School because they’ll get more ESL instruction and be grouped with their linguistic peers, Smith wrote.

District officials initially admitted to enrolling students there to ensure they don’t age out. That would negatively affect Lancaster’s graduation rate, but that’s not a reason to place these particular students at Phoenix, Smith wrote.

The district also will notify other refugees currently enrolled at Phoenix that they, too, are eligible to attend.

Twelve of more than 300 students are scheduled to start at Phoenix on Monday are refugees, according to Camelot Education spokesman Kirk Dorn.

“Our staff has grown very close to these students and we will continue to support them in any way we can, whether here at Phoenix or at McCaskey,” Dorn said in an emailed statement.

Other issues raised in the lawsuit such as installing a monitor in the district to ensure it’s following the law will be back in court next month.

This case is similar to recent ones in New York and Florida, although it’s the first to go to trial.

Lancaster resettles between 500 and 700 refugees annually, a high number for a city of 60,000 people. There are more than 500 refugees of nearly 11,500 students in the public school system.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to add details from the ruling.

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