Lancaster, Pennsylvania resident Khadidja Issa, who is originally from Sudan, was five years old when she began her decade-long stay in a Chadian refugee camp because of the civil war in her country. She emigrated to Pennsylvania in September of 2015 and said her family came to the state to get a better education.
But Issa and five fellow refugee pupils claim that district officials have denied her and her fellow refugees that opportunity by stopping them from being enrolled. Others have been put in an alternative school that is substandard, or as their attorneys said is a "dead-end," according to Colin Deppen of PA Media Group.
The class action suit is just one of several that have been filed against school districts across the country as global instability forces immigrants to the West. Lancaster has a history of welcoming refugees and has the highest number of annual arrivals in the state.
But district officials are being accused of violating the federal Equal Education Opportunities Act. The complaint also alleges that administrators have sent older refugee students to a "disciplinary school" where they were bullied, endured extreme security rules, and were exposed to a learning program that was accelerated in a way that contradicts the conventional manner in which the subject should be taught.
There are six plaintiffs in all, and they range from 17 years old to 21 years old. One of their attorneys, Eric Rothschild, along with lawyers from the ACLU and the Education Law Center, argued that the district denied enrollment to older refugee students and detoured others by sending them to a questionable alternative program.
The district countered that the alternative school, Phoenix Academy, was more suitable to the needs of the older refugee pupils than the larger, more conventional McClaskey High.
But the plaintiffs' attorneys said the alternative school was more like a "police state" and was holding English Language Learners back because of the fast pace of the instruction. Issa noted:
"In America, a good education is important. Without it," she added, "you'll have a very hard life."
Somali refugee Qassim Hassan, whose father was murdered by militiamen in that country, said the procedures used at Phoenix Academy for security reasons made him "hate the school and hate the system."
Emily Previti, reporting for WITF Public Radio, quoted district attorney Sharon O'Donnell:
"â¦ the bottom line is whether the court can tell the [Lancaster] school board where to place students."
In Pennsylvania, according to school code, all residents between 6 and 21 are to be given a free public education. The UN's 1951 Refugee Convention international treaty requires that refugees receive the same public education as residents of the country where they settle.
Federal Judge Edward G. Smith is presiding for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania's Eastern location.
O'Donnell continued by saying that English Language Learners are "spoon fed" their English as a Second Language curriculum. She also explained that there were "copious amounts" of help to be had at Phoenix Academy.
But the refugee students want to attend McCaskey High School this year because the school has an international school program that is designed to assist ELL pupils as they transition into traditional education, says Kara Newhouse of Lancaster Online.