ELC Applauds U.S. DOJ Agreement to Overhaul PA’s Alternative Education Programs to Protect Students with Disabilities and English Learners but Says Agreement Ignores Racial Disparities


The U.S. Department of Justice has reached a comprehensive agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), settling a federal civil rights investigation triggered by the Education Law Center’s 2013 complaint challenging discriminatory practices in the state’s disciplinary “alternative education” programs.  Read ELC’s full news release here.

The programs covered by the agreement are known as Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth (AEDY) programs. ELC’s civil rights complaint reported that at the time more than 14,000 students in Pennsylvania were segregated in the state’s 700+ approved AEDY programs.

“If the state implements and builds on what is now on paper, this new agreement has the potential to significantly transform alternative education in Pennsylvania in a positive direction,” said ELC executive director Deborah Gordon Klehr. “The Education Law Center will be working with parents, students, and other stakeholders to ensure that the detailed remedies are implemented promptly and with fidelity by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, to both protect the students already in these programs and students who could be improperly placed in them.”

Education Law Center’s complaint highlighted the high percentages of students with disabilities and African American students in AEDY programs across the state. In 82 Pennsylvania school districts, more than half the students sent to AEDY programs were students with disabilities, compared to a 16 percent special education population statewide. African American students comprised 35 percent of the students placed into alternative education programs, yet only 15 percent of Pennsylvania students.

See ELC’s fact sheet about exiting alternative education programs, with tips for parents of students with disabilities.

School Reform Commission approves new in-house special education program: The District downscaled the proposal after advocates complained, but concerns linger.

July 6, 2017 — Philadelphia Public School Notebook — by Dale Mezzacappa and Avi Wolfman-Arent

The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to establish a new in-house special education program for 100 students, most diagnosed with social-emotional disabilities and now placed in facilities run by Wordsworth. The new program will be run initially by the private education provider Catapult Learning before transitioning to full District control.

Emergency Motion Filed to Force School District of Lancaster to Comply with Court Order to Transfer Immigrant Students from Alternative School

LANCASTER, PA – Three weeks after a federal judge ordered the School District of Lancaster to transfer six refugee students from one of the district’s alternative schools, attorneys for the students filed an emergency motion today asking for protection for all English Language Learner immigrant students aged 17-21 against the district’s continuing practice of delaying the enrollment of older immigrant students and denying them admission to the district’s regular high school.

On August 26, after a week-long trial, Judge Edward Smith of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the school district had violated “clear law” by denying or delaying enrollment to older immigrants and by placing them in Phoenix Academy, a privately run alternative school with inadequate English language instruction instead of allowing them to attend the regular high school in the district, McCaskey.  Evidence at trial showed that more than 90 Phoenix students were English Language Learners.  The district has appealed the August 26 ruling and asked the court of appeals to expedite the appeal and to issue an order immediately blocking the injunction while the appeal proceeds.

Although the August 26 preliminary injunction order “encouraged” the district to apply the court’s interpretation of the law to all similarly situated students, plaintiffs’ motion filed today presents evidence that the school district has decided not to do so.  In an email conversation with a staffer at a local refugee resettlement agency cited in today’s filing, a senior school district official stated that, “At this point, transfers [to McCaskey] are being offered to students who were at Phoenix at the time of the [court] order. With all other students, we are proceeding status quo until our appeal is heard.”  Other email chains presented to the court showed that the district had refused transfers to several Phoenix students.

The plaintiffs argue in the emergency motion that “[i]t is now clear that the District has not honored, and has no intention of honoring, the Court’s legal reasoning” with respect to other immigrants, who continue to suffer “irreparable harm” caused by enrollment delays and exclusion from the regular high school. “The potential for harm . . .  is just as real” for other students as it was for the six named plaintiffs, the motion argues.

The plaintiffs’ emergency motion asks the court to certify the lawsuit as a class action while litigation proceeds, expressly extend the injunction to cover similarly situated immigrant English Language Learners so they can attend McCaskey, and order the district to share with plaintiffs’ lawyers information about other affected students.

The case is Issa v. School District of Lancaster. The students are being represented by 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. More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint and today’s motion, can be found at www.aclupa.org/issa.

More information about plaintiffs’ counsel can be found at:




ACLU and Education Law Center Sue School District of Lancaster for Illegally Denying Immigrant Youth an Education

July 19, 2016

LANCASTER, PA – The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, and pro bono counsel Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a federal lawsuit today alleging that the School District of Lancaster (SDOL) has been illegally refusing to enroll older immigrant students with limited English proficiency (LEP) or diverting them to an inferior, privately operated disciplinary school, rather than allowing them to attend the district’s regular high school. The plaintiffs include six refugees aged 17-21 from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma who have fled war, violence, and persecution in their native countries. Continue reading

ELC Commends Feds on New Correctional Education Guidance

Dec. 11, 2014 –  The Education Law Center commends the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on issuing new joint guidance on Correctional Education.

The guidance, released this week, not only encourages states to focus on prevention to reduce the number of children sent to juvenile correctional facilities, but also emphasizes the importance of providing high quality education to students while they are in those facilities.

“A key ingredient to success for a youth leaving a juvenile justice placement is the transition back to a traditional school setting,” said ELC’s Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow Ashley Sawyer.  “But, because of the grossly inadequate education many receive while locked up, the rate of successful transition is low and the rate of drop-out is high.”

The guidance reminds facilities that the same civil rights laws that apply to traditional public schools apply to facilities providing educational services. And these protections extend to all students, including students with disabilities. In addition, the guidance makes clear that students in juvenile correctional facilities, who otherwise meet eligibility criteria, are eligible for federal need-based grants for post-secondary education.

“Our staff at ELC has long-advocated for children in juvenile correctional facilities, including children with disabilities, who are legally entitled to a full range of educational services,” said ELC Interim Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr.  “Far too many children are sent to correctional facilities, and too often these children do not receive an appropriate education while in placement,” she said.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 44 other states and the District of Columbia have all reduced the number of children placed in juvenile correctional facilities, said Sawyer, who will work to ensure this new guidance is implemented in Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania is, unfortunately, one of a few states that has actually increased the number of students placed in juvenile correctional facilities,” she said.

Read the federal guidance.

Read the Washington Post article.


Proposed changes in Pittsburgh schools’ student conduct code emphasize progressive and positive discipline

July 20, 2014 – by Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post Gazette – The board of Pittsburgh Public Schools will vote Wednesday on Code of Student Conduct revisions that replace zero tolerance with more discretion, incorporate ideas from a student-proposed bill of rights and provide explicit protection of students for sexual orientation and gender identity expression.

Cheryl Kleiman, an attorney with Education Law Center, which worked with the district on the proposal, said this version eliminates remaining zero tolerance policies and allows individual discretion.

Continue reading

Racial disparities in school discipline: A Radio Times discussion

March 31, 2014 – WHYY, Radio Times – New information released by the Department of Education shed more light on a disturbing difference when it comes to school discipline — minority students are suspended at a much higher rate than white students. The same applies to expulsions and harsher punishments and the problem is particularly acute in Pennsylvania. With more research to show that zero tolerance policies are ineffective, some educators are rethinking the whys and hows of school discipline.

WHYY’s Radio Times talks to Harold Jordan of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Deborah Klehr of the Education Law Center, and University of Pennsylvania education professor Matthew Steinberg about the issues around school suspensions, expulsions and even arrests, particularly when it comes to minority students.

Listen to the discussion.

Op/Ed: Lessons from Coatesville

October 22, 2013 – by Solomon Hunter and Rhonda Brownstein –

When one or two individuals in an organization blatantly act out in discriminatory ways, it’s easy to imagine that dealing with those individuals, primarily by removing them from the organization, solves the problem. Continue reading

Pa. Group Alleges Discrimination in Alternative-School Placements

August 7, 2013 – by Christina Samuels –

The Pennsylvania-based Education Law Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice today, saying that young people with disabilities and black students are being placed in alternative schools far out of proportion to their representation in the school population.

Read the full story: