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Judge Enters Consent Decree in Lawsuit Challenging School District of Lancaster’s  Treatment of Older Immigrant Students

June 30, 2017

LANCASTER, PA – Following a one-year legal battle over the placement of newly arrived older immigrant students, mostly refugees, in the School District of Lancaster, U.S. District Court Judge Edward G. Smith today signed a consent decree requiring the district to educate immigrant students in its main high school, McCaskey.

The class-action lawsuit, initiated on behalf of six refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma, was filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, and volunteer counsel from the law firm of Pepper Hamilton to challenge the district’s practice of placing newly arrived older immigrant students with little or no English fluency into a privately run alternative school, Phoenix Academy, or refusing to enroll them at all. The plaintiffs claimed that placement in the alternative, accelerated-credit program was educationally inappropriate for them and, thus, violated federal statutory and constitutional law.

“This consent decree is an important victory for all current and future immigrant students in the district,” said Maura McInerney, senior attorney with the Education Law Center. “As we have seen with our clients this past school year, attending McCaskey makes a dramatic difference in supporting students to overcome language barriers and gain the skills and knowledge they need and are legally entitled to.”

In late August 2016, after a five-day trial, Judge Smith granted a preliminary injunction ordering the school district to allow the six named plaintiffs to attend McCaskey’s International School (now re-named Newcomer 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 consent decree requires the district to automatically assign all newly arrived immigrant students, with little or no English proficiency, to the specially designed Newcomer Program at the main high school, McCaskey. In addition, no newly arrived immigrant students can be forced to attend Phoenix’s accelerated program, but older students will have the option to do so after attending McCaskey. Under the consent decree, the district will be subject to monitoring for two years, and immigrant students who were denied enrollment in the school district, or were placed in Phoenix this past year, and all named plaintiffs are now eligible for limited individual funds to support supplemental educational services, including post-secondary education.

“Our refugee clients have endured so much tragedy in their young lives,” said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “Getting an education gives them a chance at a better life.”

“We are greatly pleased to have obtained this result for our clients and future immigrant students,” said Kathleen Mullen, Pepper Hamilton’s lead lawyer in the litigation.
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 A. 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.

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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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