The Utica (N.Y.) City School District has agreed to settle a lawsuit that accused it of steering refugee students who were older than 16 and didn’t speak English away from the district’s only mainstream high school program.
New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and Legal Services of Central New York, which sued the Utica district on behalf of six refugees who were not allowed to attend Proctor High School, say the proposed settlement protects immigrant students’ right to equal educational opportunities in Utica and provides a model for how school districts can ensure that English language learners are not segregated into alternative programs without their full knowledge and consent.
“Today’s agreement recognizes that no child in New York should be shortchanged on their education,” says NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “No one benefits when kids who have come to New York fleeing violence or poverty are denied their shot at the American dream. We hope the new policies for Utica will serve as a model for change for other districts that discriminate against immigrant children.”
The lawsuit contended that beginning in 2007, the Utica district excluded from Proctor High School any students who were older than 16 who had limited English proficiency. The students were diverted to segregated and inferior alternative programs, the NYCLU alleged.
Patrick Tuyizere, the lead plaintiff, was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda after escaping conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When he moved to Utica, he was placed in a segregated, English language learner-only GED program rather than being allowed to attend high school. Since the lawsuit was filed in 2015, Patrick, along with the other students named in the suit, have been permitted to enroll in Proctor High School.
“I’m happy and proud to see that others like me will be able to go to school without going through the same obstacles that I faced,” says Patrick, speaking through an interpreter.
Under the agreement, the Utica district agrees to establish high school as the default education choice for all students; students who don’t want to attend high school must opt out.
The consent decree also states that the district must
• Contact all school-age students the refugee center has documented over the last four years who aren’t enrolled in the high school and explain to them their right to enroll.
• Meet every new English language learner student who goes to the refugee center and explain to them their right to attend the high school and how alternate programs are different.
• Annually train all people involved in school registration in Utica on laws and policies regarding properly enrolling English language learner students.
• Permit the six students who filed the lawsuit the chance to attend school past their 21st birthday to compensate for the time they were wrongly denied their education.