A group of refugees is suing a Central Pennsylvania school district, saying the academy they were put in after their arduous journey to America is not up to snuff.
Represented by the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the six refugees sued Lancaster schools in federal court, saying they were dumped in a disciplinary school and are being denied access to a quality education. The students range in age from 17 to 21, and hail from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma.
“[The] Plaintiffs are refugees who have fled war, violence, and persecution from their native countries,” reads a statement from the lawsuit. “Having finally escaped their turbulent environment to resettle in America, these young immigrants yearn to learn English and get an education so they can make a life for themselves.”
The refugees hoped to enter McCaskey High School, known for its superior academic program, but instead were sent to Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school for “underachieving” students in the district. Phoenix students are subject to pat-downs, banned from bringing personal belongings like watches and jewelry and forced to wear colored shirts that “correspond with behavior.”
U.S. News and World Report's 2016 rankings show Phoenix Academy has a graduation rate of 54 percent, and its 458 students perform substantially below the state average on standardized tests. More than 90 percent of the students come from poor families, and there are just 11 full-time teachers at the school, according to the magazine.
“Our clients have already experienced much trauma and loss before arriving in this country,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “Rather than helping them make the difficult adjustment by providing educational resources required by law, the school district has denied them an education completely or forced them into an alternative school, where they are often bullied and don’t learn.”
Officials for the school district say the six students were sent to Phoenix for a special program geared towards their needs.
“[The District] believes the lawsuit is without merit," Superintendent Damaris Rau said in a statement. "We are confident we are doing an excellent job supporting our refugee students who often come to school with little or no education.”
A special "acceleration program" at Phoenix was created for under-credited students, both refugee and non-refugee, which gives them the opportunity to earn credits toward a high school diploma by the age of 21, Rau said.
At Phoenix, the students receive various services including remedial services, English classes for Second Language Learners, after school programs, job and computer skills as well as mentoring services, Rau added.
Earlier this week, some of the students testified about their educational experience in an Eastern District of Pennsylvania courtroom.
Khadidja Issa, who arrived in America from Chad with her family by way of their home country Sudan, said on Tuesday school officials told her she “was too old for school" and should get a job instead.
“I responded that I didn’t want a job without an education,” she said.
Issa, who lived in a refugee camp from the age of 5 to 17, also said that she found the search procedure invasive while attending the school.
“I have been to school before and I’ve never seen a place where they pat you down in order to enter school, and they do it every day,” she said.