ACLU files emergency motion to allow all refugee students into J.P. McCaskey High School

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LANCASTER, Pa -Three weeks after a federal judge ordered the School District of Lancaster to transfer six refugee students from one of the district’s alternative schools, attorneys for the students filed an emergency motion today asking for protection for all English Language Learner immigrant students aged 17-21 against the district’s continuing practice of delaying the enrollment of older immigrant students and denying them admission to the district’s regular high school.

On August 26, after a week-long trial, Judge Edward Smith of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the school district had violated “clear law” by denying or delaying enrollment to older immigrants and by placing them in Phoenix Academy, a privately run alternative school with inadequate English language instruction instead of allowing them to attend the regular high school in the district, McCaskey.  Evidence at trial showed that more than 90 Phoenix students were English Language Learners.  The district has appealed the August 26 ruling and asked the court of appeals to expedite the appeal and to issue an order immediately blocking the injunction while the appeal proceeds.

Although the August 26 preliminary injunction order “encouraged” the district to apply the court’s interpretation of the law to all similarly situated students, plaintiffs’ motion filed today presents evidence that the school district has decided not to do so.  In an email conversation with a staffer at a local refugee resettlement agency cited in today’s filing, a senior school district official stated that, “At this point, transfers [to McCaskey] are being offered to students who were at Phoenix at the time of the [court] order. With all other students, we are proceeding status quo until our appeal is heard.”  Other email chains presented to the court showed that the district had refused transfers to several Phoenix students.

The plaintiffs argue in the emergency motion that “[i]t is now clear that the District has not honored, and has no intention of honoring, the Court’s legal reasoning” with respect to other immigrants, who continue to suffer “irreparable harm” caused by enrollment delays and exclusion from the regular high school. “The potential for harm . . .  is just as real” for other students as it was for the six named plaintiffs, the motion argues.

The plaintiffs’ emergency motion asks the court to certify the lawsuit as a class action while litigation proceeds, expressly extend the injunction to cover similarly situated immigrant English Language Learners so they can attend McCaskey, and order the district to share with plaintiffs’ lawyers information about other affected students.

The case is Issa v. School District of Lancaster. More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint and today’s motion, can be found at www.aclupa.org/issa.