School District of Lancaster Pa. to Educate Immigrant Students in Same School As Other Students After Successful Defense by Pepper Hamilton

On June 30, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Edward G. Smith of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania signed a consent decree requiring the School District of Lancaster, Pa. (SDOL) to educate immigrant students in its main high school, McCaskey. The decree follows a yearlong legal battle over the placement of newly arrived older immigrant students, comprising mostly refugees, in a privately run alternative school in the school district.

Pepper Hamilton, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Education Law Center represented six student refugees in the civil rights lawsuit against the SDOL after the students were denied enrollment in the district's program for international students. The suit alleged that the SDOL had a practice of delaying and denying enrollment of older immigrant and refugee students or sending them to an alternative school for accelerated credit acquisition, and sought a preliminary injunction to have them placed in the district’s regular high school, which has a program specifically designed for newly entering refugee students.

After a five-day preliminary injunction hearing, Judge Smith ruled that the SDOL violated the civil rights of older immigrant students with limited English proficiency when it diverted them to an inferior, alternative school that taught an accelerated program in a language the students did not understand rather than allowing them to attend the district’s regular high school.

Judge Smith ordered the SDOL to immediately transfer the students to the district's regular high school, a ruling upheld by the U.S. Court of Appels for the Third Circuit.

The consent decree requires the district to automatically assign all newly arrived immigrant students, with little or no English proficiency, to the specially designed program at McCaskey. In addition, no newly arrived immigrant students can be forced to attend the alternative accelerated program, but older students will have the option to do so after attending McCaskey. Under the consent decree, the district will be subject to monitoring for two years, and certain immigrant students, including the named plaintiffs, are eligible for limited individual funds to support supplemental educational services.

“We are greatly pleased to have obtained this result for our clients and future immigrant students,” said Kathleen Mullen, Pepper Hamilton’s lead lawyer in the litigation.