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ACLU threatens legal action against Harrisburg School District

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HARRISBURG, Pa. - The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening legal action against the Harrisburg School District if it does not make further changes to its admissions policies.

The threat stems from an incident in February, in which four refugee students, aged 5 and 6 years old, were initially denied admission to the district's elementary schools.

District policy stated that children under 8 would not be admitted after the 10th day of the school year unless the children were coming from a similar program, according to an ACLU news release.

In collaboration with the Community Justice Project, the groups threatened a lawsuit at that time before the school district relented and admitted the students.

The district made changes to its policy in late July, but the groups say the adjustments are ambiguous and would not prevent a similar situation from happening again.

"They're overcoming the trauma of leaving war-torn countries and all they really wanted to do was to be able to come to Harrisburg to be able to start school, learn English and try to adjust, try to make friends, just like any kindergartener or first-grader wants to be doing," Marielle Macher of the Community Justice Project said.

Late Thursday, the school district issued a press release of its own:

"On August 3, 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Community Justice Project (collectively “ACLU”) issued a press release that inaccurately portrays the Harrisburg School District as discriminating against the refugee community by denying children in that community admission to the District’s schools.  The ACLU wrongly accuses the District of having a discriminatory admission policy and being unaware of basic principles of educational and constitutional law. 

The District’s policy regarding the admission of refugee and other students is lawful and consistent with the District’s obligations under state and federal law.  The District regularly commits significant time and effort to help all families in enrolling their children as students.  The District works with families to obtain information or documentation required for enrollment.  The District does everything it lawfully can to enroll children in school.  The District cannot simply enroll any child for whom enrollment is sought.  State law, which the District must follow, mandates that families who seek to enroll children in school must present certain information such as proof of residence in the District and proof of immunizations.

The new enrollment guidance that the District issued makes clear that enrollment decisions will consider “extraordinary or other circumstances related where, whether inside or outside of the United States of America, the child was located or resided prior to residing in the District.”  This refutes the ACLU’s allegations that the District is ignoring the needs of refugee children and is in line with the District’s lawful discretion to determine its student admissions procedures.  The District has not, does not and will not intend to unlawfully exclude students.

Of particular concern about the ACLU press release is that the District, in good faith, cooperatively worked with the ACLU to address the ACLU’s concerns and understood and expected that the cooperative relationship would continue in order to help refugee and other students enroll in school.  After leading the District to believe that a cooperative relationship existed, the ACLU now portrays the District as being uncaring and discriminatory. That is unfortunate and unfair.  Nevertheless, the District will continue to help students enroll in school in full observance of the law and is committed to reasonably working with any organization that has the same goal."