By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Elise Chesson hadn’t been working more than a few weeks when she noticed refugee students were having trouble enrolling in the School District of Lancaster. Her testimony Wednesday offered further insights into how older refugee students in Lancaster, Pa. have been diverted away from a local public high school, the J.P. McCaskey Campus, and into Phoenix Academy, a disciplinary school run by private company Camelot Education.
In early December 2015, Chesson began as employment program manager for Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lancaster, Pa. Among her responsibilities were refugee social services; she helped find education and employment options for refugees. That’s when she met 17-year-old Qasin Hassan.
A Somali refugee who’d come to Lancaster, with his family through Cairo, his documents showed that he neither spoke nor read English; Somali and Arabic were his means of communication. And he had no official education records.
When refugees arrive in the U.S., there’s typically a 90-day case management period when caseworkers like Chesson help them settle in, get accustomed to local culture, and acclimate to daily tasks such as going to the bank and buying groceries. Caseworkers are also often responsible for making sure they find a place to work or attend school.
Qasin had been in the U.S. for months and still wasn’t in school. The School District had thus far refused to enroll him.
Chesson took over the case from her colleague in late December and in her first contact with Qasin, school district officials doubled down on their refusal to enroll him. Administrators said, instead, that he should go to the local Literacy Council, a private organization, and take English classes there and get his GED instead.
Part of the reason for this decision, Chesson testified, was that the district official in charge of enrollment thought Qasin’s body language suggested he didn’t want to go to school.
Chesson responded by explaining that cultural barriers and differences might’ve suggested to SDOL administrators that Qasin didn’t want to go to school, but those were likely misinterpretations; Qasin wanted to go to school.
So Chesson continued to push for him. And eventually the district relented. They sent him to Phoenix Academy. Other options were not discussed — including the district’s public high school, McCaskey, which offered more English classes and a program called the “International School” specially tailored for newly arrived immigrants, like Qasin.
Other students in similar situations went to Chesson as well. She observed a pattern: older students with limited English language skills would experience delays being enrolled into SDOL. Or their enrollment would be denied outright. And when people like Chesson would speak out and push to get them enrolled, those kids would be sent to Phoenix Academy.
With a little research, Chesson learned that Phoenix wasn’t optimal. The students-to-teacher ratio at Phoenix was nearly four times the amount at McClaskey, for one. “Highly qualified teachers,” as defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, taught 92 percent of McCaskey classes, while 0 percent taught Phoenix classes. Phoenix did not offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, and while 83 percent of McCaskey’s students were “college ready,” none were “college ready” at Phoenix.
Reading these stats, she asked to sit in on an orientation class at Phoenix. What she saw shocked her.
“I would have described it … like a detention center,” Chesson told the court Wednesday. Instead of emphasizing what kids would be taught, administrators emphasized how they would be disciplined — what tactics so-called “behavioral specialists” at the school would use to keep kids in line. They demonstrated “handle with care” tactics — which ended with kids being pressed face first against a “clean wall” with their hands restrained behind their backs. Phoenix administrators demonstrated this to the students at orientation — a gesture that amounted to an open threat.
“This was the first impression these kids were getting,” Chesson testified.
School administrators, she said, emphasized that “this is a school of last resort.”
They also discussed that there is no homework because students can’t bring anything into or out of the school. Girls weren’t even allowed to bring feminine hygiene products.
“Education did not appear to be a focus,” Chesson said.
“I was shocked. I was disappointed that these students who had been through so much were being placed in a school like this,” she said.
“We asked why they couldn’t go to international school at McCaskey,” Chesson said. “They just said, ‘This is how it is.’”
The pattern that had been established with Qasin and Khadidja, a seventeen-year-old refugee from Sudan who had been denied enrollment and then delayed admission to Phoenix for months, continued with more refugee students — delays, enrollment denials, then after extensive advocacy, they were reluctantly placed in Phoenix.
As time passed, Qasin went to school at Phoenix. Not only did he not receive adequate English language instruction, according to Chesson, he also found himself bullied — kids would yell at him, pull his hair, and use racial slurs against him. He eventually decided to stop going to school.
Qasin told her: ‘If you give me a choice between a prison and Phoenix Academy, I’ll choose a prison.”
Chesson is a lead witness in the case against SDOL. After more than two hours of testimony, it was revealed that her job was recently eliminated — and that she continues to advocate for refugee children to get an education, despite not being paid to do so. The district’s defense attorney, Sharon O’Donnell asked her about this — why she was still advocating on behalf of refugee students like Hassan and others when she had no official agency to represent.
“I don’t need an agency to advocate for what I feel is an injustice,” Chesson said.