A group of refugees are suing their US school district for allegedly forcing them to attend a high school they claim is 'more like a detention center'

A group of six refugees and their parents have filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that they were denied the right to equal educational opportunities in the US after fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries.

The students, aged 17 to 21, are refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma “who have fled war, violence, and persecution in their native countries,” according to the suit.

The complaint alleges that the Pennsylvania School District of Lancaster (SDOL) either denied students access to any schooling in the district or forced them to attend Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school for “underachieving” students.

While most other students in the district attend J. P. McCaskey High School, the plaintiffs attended Phoenix Academy, which is run by the for-profit education group Camelot Education. Phoenix has a 42:1 student-teacher ratio, whereas McCaskey’s ratio is 14:1.

The suit lays out some striking differences between the schools saying:

  • “The percentage of classes taught by ‘highly qualified teachers,’ as defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, at McCaskey is 92% whereas 0% of the classes at Phoenix are taugh by ‘ highly qualified teachers.'”
  • “For Advanced-Placement testing, 32% of students at McCasket take AP tests, whereas 0% of Phoenix students take AP tests.”
  • “According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, ‘college ready’ students comprise 83% of McCasket students whereas 0% of Phoenix students are deemed ‘college ready.'”

The suit also claims that at Phoenix “students are subject to pat-down searches, prohibited from bringing belongings into or out of the school, forced to wear coloured shirts that correspond with behaviour and not allowed to wear watches or jewellery … and can be subjected to physical and even violent restraint, as part of the school’s disciplinary policy.”

Teacher classroom education schoolYusuke Umezawa/FlickrThe suit claims that students at Phoenix are subject to pat-down searches.

Included on the list of prohibited belongings for students at Phoenix are backpacks, lunch bags, and even feminine products for women who are menstruating, Elise Chesson, a program manager contracted by the governement to resettle refugees in Lancaster, told Lancaster Online. The school, however, offers its own books and supplies, and female students can ask for feminine products.

Phoenix operates “more like a detention center” than a school, Chesson told Lancaster Online.

Attorneys for SDOL, however, say the characterizations of Phoenix Academy are overblown and that it’s “not the prison some people would make it out to be.”

Some of the criticism of Phoenix stems from the pace of instruction — that it’s too fast and the school intentionally tries to turn over students quickly. Describing the benefit to students that Phoneix provides, he District’s superintendent Damaris Rao hit back on those allegations.

“The intention of the Phoenix program is to accelerate kids’ credits so that they can get back — and we have tons of kids who go back to [the public high school] McCaskey — and graduate on time,” Rao said, according to Pennsylvania National Public Radio station WPSU. ” So, I think they’re doing a really good job and it’s a shame that it’s come to this.”

Further, the school district’s attorney, Sharon O’Donnell, placed the blame on the plaintiffs for not asking for the help they need at Phoenix.

“[Help is] there, and it’s there in copious amounts,” O’Donnell said in opening arguments, according to Lancaster Online.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court injunction that requires the district to admit class members to McCaskey and make appropriate modifications to overcome language barriers in time for the fall semester.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania filed the suit on behalf of the students and their families in July.

“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.

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