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Lancaster School District Settlement Will Give all Future Immigrant Students Access to an Appropriate Education

LANCASTER, PA (March 28, 2017) – A nine-month legal battle over the placement of newly-arrived older immigrant students, mostly refugees, in the School District of Lancaster is ending with a comprehensive settlement.

The agreement, which the School Board approved tonight, restricts the district from placing any newly arrived 17 to 20-year-old immigrant students with little or no English fluency into a privately-run alternative school, Phoenix Academy, and instead requires placement in a specially-designed “Newcomer Program” at the main high school, McCaskey.

“Today’s agreement extends the guarantee of a strong and appropriate education to all older immigrant students settling in Lancaster,” said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “Our courageous clients should be very proud of their achievement.”

“The positive and collaborative resolution of this case is an important result for our clients who need to be educated in a regular school like McCaskey with appropriate ESL supports where they can understand the curriculum, gain knowledge and learn essential skills to build a new life in this country,” said Maura McInerney, senior attorney with the Education Law Center. “It is also an important advancement for English language learners across the commonwealth who have a right to an equal and meaningful education that supports them to effectively overcome language barriers.”

The settlement, which the parties’ lawyers still must finalize, accomplishes several important objectives. All newly arrived immigrant students, with little or no English proficiency, will automatically be assigned to the International Program, which is being renamed the Newcomer Program. In addition, no newly-arrived immigrant students will be required to attend Phoenix’s accelerated program, but older students will have the option to do so.

The settlement also ensures that all immigrant students assigned to Phoenix since the injunction issued last August – about 11 students – will be offered the opportunity to transfer to McCaskey immediately, to complete the fourth marking period, or they will have the opportunity to transfer thereafter. In addition, immigrant students who were not able to enroll in the school district since 2013, or who were placed in Phoenix this past year, and the named plaintiffs, are eligible for limited individual funds to support supplemental educational services, including post-secondary education. These funds total $66,500.

Finally, the district agreed to a two-year period during which the plaintiffs’ attorneys will be allowed to monitor the school district’s compliance with the consent decree.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania, Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, volunteer counsel from the law firm of Pepper Hamilton, and University of Pennsylvania law professor, Seth Kreimer, filed the federal civil rights, class-action lawsuit in July 2016 on behalf of six refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma. The lawsuit alleged that the school district denied plaintiffs and other immigrant and refugee students enrollment in an “International Program” that was designed for newly-arrived immigrants because the students were older and might not graduate on time. Plaintiffs claimed that the school district funneled the students to an alternative, accelerated-credit recovery program that was educationally inappropriate for them and, thus, violated federal statutory and constitutional law.  The school district has consistently denied these claims.

A trial seeking a final injunction had been anticipated for this summer. Today’s settlement ends the formal legal proceedings. Kathleen Mullen, Pepper Hamilton’s lead lawyer in the litigation, expressed satisfaction on the result.

“We are very pleased that we were able to work with the district to resolve this matter for the benefit of the students,” Mullen said.

In late August 2016, after a five-day evidentiary hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Smith granted a preliminary injunction ordering the school district to allow the six named plaintiffs to attend McCaskey’s International Program. In late January of this year, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the injunction.

The case is Issa v. School District of Lancaster. The students are being represented by Witold 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 B. Schmidt, III, Megan Morley, Katrina Long, Kaitlin M. Gurney, and Hedya Aryani at the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP; and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Click here to learn more about the case.

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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information visit https://test-elc-paorg.pantheonsite.io/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

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