Public schools in Utica, New York, are unlawfully depriving refugee students of a normal high school education by segregating them from their peers into “inferior” alternative schools that do not grant high-school diplomas, civil liberties groups argued in a class-action lawsuit filed this week.
The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed the suit on behalf of six refugee students and a “class of similar immigrant students” who say the city is violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act — under which a school district may not discriminate on the basis of national origin or immigration status — by excluding refugees between the ages of 17 and 20 with limited English proficiency from normal schools.
"These immigrants are coming from countries where they've already been limited because of persecution or violence," said Phil Desgranges, an attorney with the NYCLU who is working on the case. "They come to the United States for the American dream, to become doctors or teachers, and they're being told, 'No, you can't go to school.'"
According to the lawsuit, the Utica City school district since 2007 has been diverting newly arrived refugees above age 16 into one of two programs. Those with particularly poor English skills are sent to study English at the Newcomer program, which does not offer normal school subjects — like math, history and science — and does not issue diplomas or prepare students for General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency tests. That puts higher education out of reach, Desgranges said.
Plaintiff Suk Maya Rai, whose family escaped persecution in Bhutan, said she had studied six subjects while living in a refugee camp in Nepal. In Utica, she learns only English. “I heard this country offers a great education,” she said. “My ambition is to become a nurse, and I hope that I will be able to take classes like science.”
Others students are sent to the Alignment of Pathways and Programs for Learners of English (APPLE) program, in the nearby town of New Hartford, where they may prepare for a GED but don’t have the opportunity to mingle with American students, the NYCLU said. APPLE students don't get to take advanced courses or electives like art or to play on sports teams — opportunities that are available at the city's public high school, Proctor High.
“I came to the United States hoping to go to school so that I might become a medical doctor,” said APPLE student Patrick Tuyizere, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, who was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda and came to the U.S. when he was 17. “All I want to do is go to school and work hard to achieve my goals, but right now all I feel is that I am falling behind and it makes me very sad.”
Utica schools Superintendent Bruce Karam's office did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for a comment in time for publication. In an email to news website Syracuse.com published on Thursday, however, Karam said, "From what I have been advised, the allegations are totally unfounded and without merit ... We have never denied any student entry into our schools. We provide a quality education to all our students."
Howard Mettelman, the superintendent of the Oneida-Herkimer Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which hosts the APPLE program, told The Utica Observer-Dispatch that the specialized programs afford refugee students the opportunity to “climb the ladder to success” in a different way. Some students, Mettelman said, “were not being successful when placed in traditional all-Regents programs without those foundation skills." Students may also transfer out of, or between, the Newcomer and APPLE programs, he added.
But Desgranges said that refugee students in Utica were not being tested annually to see if their English had improved, as mandated under New York state law. He added that the school district had no grounds to discriminate on the basis of age either, since all students under 21 are guaranteed schooling in New York.
Utica, a city of 60,000 in upstate New York, has earned the moniker of "the second-chance city" for its high refugee population — approximately 1 in 6 residents, according to the NYCLU. It isn't clear how many refugee students have been locked out of Proctor High, though more than 50 are currently enrolled in either Newcomer or APPLE, the NYCLU said.
Separately on Thursday, a spokesman for New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that prosecutors had begun their own civil rights investigation into the claims, according to Syracuse.com.
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