Appeals Court Upholds Duty of Lancaster School District to Overcome Language Barriers and Provide Equal Educational Opportunities for Older Immigrant Students

January 30, 2017

PHILADELPHIA (January 30) – The federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today upheld the rights of immigrant students to receive equal educational opportunities in the School District of Lancaster. The opinion emanates from a federal class action lawsuit, Issa, et al., v. School District of Lancaster challenging the District’s treatment of immigrant students aged 17-21.

“This case is more important now than ever. It affirms the right of immigrant and refugee students to a meaningful education that overcomes language barriers.” said Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney of the Education Law Center and one of the lawyers for the students. “The decision sends a clear and unequivocal message to all public schools that they have a duty to provide sound and effective English language services. Many immigrant students, particularly those newly arrived in the U.S. with limited prior education have unique and significant language needs that must be proactively addressed. They cannot languish in classrooms where they cannot access the curriculum.”

The Third Circuit affirmed the August 26th decision of Judge Edward Smith of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which held that the School District violated the civil rights of older immigrant students under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) by diverting them to an inferior, privately operated alternative school, Phoenix Academy, that failed to address their significant language needs. Judge Smith’s order granted a preliminary injunction directing the School District to immediately enroll the student plaintiffs in the regular high school, McCaskey. The School District appealed that order to the Third Circuit.

“Our refugee clients came to America with a vision that a good education is the ticket to success. We are thrilled that the courts have opened the schoolhouse gates for them.” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania who argued the case in the Third Circuit. “We will continue to push the District to extend this relief to all immigrant students in similar circumstances. They are all legally entitled to a meaningful education that permits them to learn English.”

Kathleen Mullen, of counsel with Pepper Hamilton LLP, added, “With this ruling, the Court has plainly rejected the School District’s claim of unfettered decision-making authority when its programs fall short of protections provided by federal law. The School District claimed that it graduates these students as evidence of their success at overcoming language barriers, but the District Court found ample evidence, and the Third Circuit today affirmed, that pushing these students to a quick graduation is not the same as ensuring their right to overcome language barriers.”

The lawsuit was filed in July 2016 by the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and pro bono counsel from Pepper Hamilton LLP on behalf of a group of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Burma who had fled violence and persecution before being resettled in the U.S. The lawsuit is a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the named plaintiffs and all other immigrant and refugee students similarly denied or delayed enrollment to the main high school and diverted instead to Phoenix, which offers inferior English instruction on an accelerated structure.

The action is ongoing before Judge Smith in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The students are being represented by Vic Walczak, Molly Tack-Hooper, and Michelin Cahill of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Maura McInerney, Kristina Moon, and Alex Dutton of the Education Law Center; Kathleen Mullen, Thomas A. Schmidt, III, Megan Morley, Katrina Long, Kaitlin M. Gurney, and Hedya Aryani at the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLC; and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.


Click here to download the Court’s January 30, 2017 decision.

Click here to read more about the case.