New York attorney general: Utica school district discriminates against immigrant students

The school district in the heavily immigrant city of Utica discriminates against older students with limited English skills by refusing to let them attend the only high school, instead steering them into "dead-end" programs that offer no chance for a diploma, the state's chief lawyer said Wednesday in announcing a civil rights lawsuit.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the practice violates state and federal laws that guarantee students equal access to an education. "The district funneled these immigrant students into alternative programs that were effectively roads to nowhere," Schneiderman said in a news release.

The claims echo those contained in a federal lawsuit brought in April by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of six Utica students.

District officials have found the allegations to be "without basis or merit," Superintendent Bruce Karam said.

"Our teachers, principals and staff work very hard each day and take great pride in providing high quality educational opportunities for all of our students and we will continue to do so in the future," Karam, a defendant in both lawsuits, said in a statement.

At issue is the district's treatment of students who are between 17 and 20 years old and have limited English proficiency. Even if those students want to enroll in the high school, the district's policy since at least 2007 has been to divert them into programs that in some cases focus only on learning English, the latest lawsuit clams.

It describes a segregated system in which immigrant students take classes in separate buildings and do not eat lunch or participate in extracurricular activities with non-immigrant students. Attempts to enroll at the high school are not recorded, the suit said, to avoid a state requirement to test students' English.

"These are all refugees from various places in the world who come here for a better life and when they tried to go to school they were shunted into programs that didn't even offer them the opportunity to get a high-school diploma," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, who praised Schneiderman's action, said by phone.

But some elected officials and the school district's attorney condemned it as retaliation for Utica's involvement in a pending lawsuit that claims New York state has underfunded school districts in Utica and seven other small cities by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.

"The message the state has sent to the Utica school district through this frivolous lawsuit is: Drop dead!" Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi said.

Sen. Joseph Griffo said Schneiderman's lawsuit "smacks of retribution."

About 18 percent of Utica's 60,000 residents were born outside of the United States, Schneiderman said, and more than 25 percent speak a language other than English at home.

School attorney Don Gerace said the district has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for its immigrant programs and treats English language learners the same as other students. Students may elect to attend the alternative programming but are not forced to, he said.

In the wake of the April lawsuit, Gerace said, the district not only enrolled the plaintiff students at Proctor High School but reached out to other students in alternative programs to make sure they knew they could attend.

"The district was unaware of the existence of those six students and immediately enrolled them," he said.

About 1,700 English language learners are enrolled in the district, the superintendent said, including more than 200 between the ages of 17 and 21 who attend the high school.