LANCASTER, Pa. – Somali refugee Qasim Hassan told a Pennsylvania court that upon his arrival in America, “I did not find the school that I deserved.”
Hassan is among six refugees who are suing Lancaster schools with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging that an alternative school where some older refugees were placed isn’t good enough, and the inadequate instruction violates their rights, PennLive reports.
“We came to get a better education,” Sudanese refugee Khadidja Issa told the court.
The lawsuit alleges refugee students “were, are, or may be in the future denied their right to equal educational opportunities and meaningful public education by Defendant School District of Lancaster in violation of the U.S. Constitution, federal civil rights statutes, and Pennsylvania education law,” according to PennLive.
The students, who range in age from 17 to 21 years old, claim district officials denied or delayed their enrollment in the school system, and often sent older students to an alternative school – Phoenix Academy – instead of McCaskey High School, where the plaintiffs claim students receive a better education.
According to Newsworks:
Pennsylvania school code says residents between 6 and 21 years old are entitled to a free public education. At least one international treaty, the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, requires refugees to get the same public education as residents of countries where they’re resettled.
This week, the refugee students are testifying about their experience in the district, and at Phoenix Academy, where they claim to have been “traumatized” by security measures that include pat-downs and property searches. The students also claim the accelerated learning at Phoenix Academy – designed to help students earn a diploma before they’re no longer eligible for free education – is not well-suited for refugees.
The lawsuit argues that younger refugee students placed at McCaskey High School enjoy a slower, more effective English language program, PennLive reports.
“The class moves fast and I don’t learn anything,” Issa said.
District attorneys refuted claims that Phoenix Academy is inferior to McCaskey High, and pointed out several reasons why the former provides a better environment for older refugee students.
“Phoenix Academy is not the prison that some people would make it out to be,” attorney Sharon O’Donnell said. “They’re actually getting more focused instruction away from the distractions of the larger McCaskey High School.”
“If they don’t like the security measures (at Phoenix Academy) then they definitely won’t like them at McCaskey where they have two guards with Tasers and yes, sometimes they have to use them,” she said.
Testimony in the case is expected to last through the end of the week. The refugee students want the court to grant an injunction that would allow them to transfer to McCaskey, and possibly graduate from the school, and are requesting a decision on the matter before school starts, PennLive reports.