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Immigration Law

NY District Blocked Refugee Kids From High School, Suit Says

"A civil liberties group and legal aid service filed a potential class action in New York federal court against an upstate school district Thursday, accusing the district of discriminating against certain refugee students by excluding them from a public high school.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York said Utica public schools prevent refugees over age 16 who speak limited English from enrolling in high school.

The students are instead segregated into inferior education programs where they have no chance to earn a diploma, according to the suit, which was filed on behalf of six refugee students.

“Young people are coming to Utica after fleeing violence and persecution only to be shut out by the city’s only public high school,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

Alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution and Civil Rights Act and state and federal education laws, the complaint seeks injunctive relief and declarations that the Utica City School District acted illegally.

District officials could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday, but local media quoted Superintendent Bruce Karam as saying the accusations were "totally unfounded."

According to the civil liberties group, nearly one in six Utica residents is a refugee, as the city in recent decades has become a haven for people fleeing violence and persecution in their home counties.

Since 2007, however, the district has adopted a policy of diverting immigrants over 16 who speak limited English into the two alternative programs, the suit says.

One is the Newcomer Program, where students are offered classes that only teach English, excluding content like math, history or science. The program only recently began to offer high school equivalency, or GED, courses to students who test well on an English proficiency exam, the suit says.

The second alternative is the APPLE Program, a GED course in a nearby city.

That’s the program named plaintiff Patrick Tuyizere found himself in when he moved to Utica last October. Tuyizere, an aspiring doctor, and his family had come to the U.S. a few months earlier from a refugee camp in Rwanda.

“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,” he said in an NYCLU statement.

In addition, because the students in the Newcomer Program aren’t enrolled in a public school, they don’t qualify for federally subsidized lunch. As a result, many who don’t bring their own lunch go without food for the day, the complaint says.

The NYCLU said the district's actions flout a state law that requires a free public education to individuals under 21 who have not yet earned a degree.

The complaint seeks to represent a class of immigrants ages 17 to 20 who have been prevented from enrolling in high school because of the district’s policies.

The plaintiffs are represented by Philip Desgranges, Alexis Karteron and Arthur Eisenberg of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Susan M. Young and Samuel C. Young of Legal Services of Central New York.

Counsel information for the district was not immediately available.

The case is Patrick Tuyizere et al. v. Utica City School District Board of Education et al., case number 6:15-cv-00488, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York." - Law360, Apr. 23, 2015.