In day one of Lancaster immigrant testimony, a broken school emerges

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Alembe and Anyemu Dumia

ACLU of Pennsylvania clients, Alembe and Anyemu Dunia. (credit: Molly Tack-Hooper)

When hundreds of refugees enter Lancaster, Pa. every year from countries all over the world, their first contact is often Sheila Mastropietro.

Mastropietro is the director of the immigration and refugee program at the Lancaster branch of the Church World Service. Her work involves finding housing, food, clothing and shelter for refugees — people who have fled war and adversity in their home countries, and landed in the Keystone State.

It also often involves finding them educational opportunities.

In 2010, Mastropietro started hearing complaints from case workers saying that refugee students — young people from ages 17 to 21 — were either being denied enrollment into the School District of Lancaster (SDOL), or sent to a disciplinary school, Phoenix Academy, run by a private company called Camelot Education. Mastropietro arranged a meeting with SDOL’s superintendent to ask about it.

When the superintendent didn’t deny the complaints outright, Mastropietro suggested things needed to change. Refugee students needed to be enrolled in SDOL’s main high school, the J.P. McCaskey Campus, she said, for many reasons — including that McCaskey offers a full course selection, Advanced Placement courses, an International Baccalaureate program, and extracurricular sports and other programs. Phoenix had none of that. There was another reason, too, Mastropietro said: A mainstream school like McCaskey — one with more than six times the overall enrollment numbers of Phoenix — would better help to socialize refugee students to the society they were now a part of.

The response Mastropietro received appalled her.

“If socialization is what [these students] want,” said the district’s director of pupil services, “they should go to church.”

That exchange was front and center Tuesday during the first day of testimony in Issa v. the School District of Lancaster — a lawsuit centered around how SDOL has treated young refugees attempting to enroll in the district. A class action brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania along with the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP and the Education Law Center, the case alleges that SDOL established a pattern of doing exactly what Mastropietro had heard: Either discouraging older immigrant students from enrolling in school, or diverting them to Phoenix Academy.

And Tuesday’s testimony went further still. It described an atmosphere at Phoenix in which students were searched and patted down before school, and in which teachers would fill out correct test answers for students who weren’t able to read or understand English. It described a school where students received no homework and weren’t allowed to bring books home, and where they were forced through an accelerated curriculum regardless of whether they understood the material they were being taught. Interpreters were not provided for students, and English as a second language was more theory than practice.

“[These students] want to be educated so they can create a better life for themselves and for their families,” said Eric Rothschild, an attorney with Pepper Hamilton, presenting to the court Tuesday.

Instead, he continued, they’re speeding through high school at a break-neck pace toward diplomas that are essentially meaningless.

“A diploma without meaningful education is not going to be useful for them,” he said.

***

Sitting on the stand Tuesday, grinning wide, with her head covered in a white hijab, Khadidja Issa explained through an interpreter that she was born in Sudan, and that her family fled home when she was five years old because of “extreme heat and insecurity” in the war-torn northeast African nation. From there, she moved to Chad, where she lived with her family in a refugee camp until she was 17 years old. She’d attended school in Chad before her family left for Lancaster. None of her classes at the refugee camp were taught in English or involved learning English. But she thought the U.S. education system would help her get beyond the language barrier.

She was wrong.

She started the application process to enroll in SDOL in November, she said, and was told that she “was too old for school and that I should get a job,” she said.

“I responded that I didn’t want a job without an education,” she said.

She persisted. With the help of social workers, she was eventually told she would be enrolled in Phoenix Academy.

Despite knowing very little English, she was enrolled into eleventh grade at Phoenix, taking classes taught in English.

There were other problems with Phoenix, too, she said.

“First thing when you arrive at school is the pat down,” she said.

Issa and three other students who were recently enrolled at Phoenix all described an elaborate search procedure in which students had their shoes searched every morning before school. The students were also not allowed to bring bags, notebooks, or anything else to or from school — eliminating the possibility that they might receive or complete homework.

Sharon M. O’Donnell, representing the district, in the case, countered such testimony, arguing that search procedures in public schools are commonplace.

“I had to come into this court today and take off my shoes,” O’Donnell told the court.

Going further, O’Donnell said: “If [the students] don’t like the security, McCaskey has two full time school resource officers and … they have Tasers. And, yes, sometimes they have to use them.”

Issa nonetheless found Phoenix’s search procedures invasive.

“I have been to school before and I’ve never seen a place where they pat you down in order to enter school, and they do it every day,” she said.

The pat downs weren’t the only thing that shocked her about Phoenix.

Issa’s 16-year-old sister wasn’t “too old” for McCaskey, so that’s where she was assigned to attend school. Issa admitted that her sister has a much better grasp of English than she does.

Two young women from Burma, 19 and 17, who testified Tuesday, made the same claim; their younger brother attends McCaskey and speaks better English than they do.

Since they don’t attend McCaskey, none could testify exactly about what makes McCaskey a better school for non-English speakers, but each explained why Phoenix wasn’t getting the job done. Phoenix does not provide interpreters to students, they said, and the one period a day devoted to teaching English as a second language isn’t enough to accomplish anything approaching that goal.

Qasin Hassan, a 17-year-old Somali student, said his family fled home after his father was killed by Al-Shabab militants. They lived in Egypt for five years before immigrating to Lancaster in late 2015. Like Issa, he said class worksheets were not translated into Arabic for him at Phoenix, despite his inability to read or speak English. His English teacher would show him pictures to help him understand, he said, through an interpreter in court, but no other teacher tried this method. And both he and Issa described having teachers fill in answers on tests when they were unable to read or provide answers themselves.

Issa pointed out something potentially worse for an eager student: She said she doesn’t do anything at school; she just sits there.

“In America, if you don’t have an education, you have a very hard life,” she said.

***

Pennsylvania law dictates that students can enroll in free public education toward a high school diploma until they turn 21 years old.

Repeatedly, SDOL’s representative, O’Donnell, stressed that Phoenix Academy provides students with the opportunity to receive a diploma.

Phoenix can also act as a bridge toward going to McCaskey, she said. But only “if the students choose to go.”

“Many don’t make that choice,” she said, “because they’re able to get their education” and then “move onto jobs where they can make money.”

“Some students do very well,” she insisted, and the district’s policy is to consult with students when they arrive to determine the best course of action. “Once they show up at our door, then the idea is to assess them and figure out how best to serve them,” she said. They are not sent to Phoenix or McCaskey based on language proficiency, she said, but based on their ability to graduate on time.

“To educate and graduate” is the school’s premise, she said.

And while students and people like Sheila Mastropietro — the Church World Service refugee coordinator — may quibble with Phoenix’s approach to education, O’Donnell said, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania “has told us that the magnet school, Phoenix Academy, is just fine.”

“If we hear testimony that kids aren’t getting help, it’s because they’re not asking,” O’Donnell said.

“It’s not that they’re being lost or that they’re being pushed aside,” she continued. “They’re being attended to, and being attended to very well.”

To Issa, O’Donnell stressed these ideas. Going further, she said that transferring to McCaskey — a school with a much slower academic schedule — might not allow Issa to receive a diploma and graduate.
Issa responded: “I don’t just want the graduation. I want an actual education.”

***

ACLU-PA, along with lawyers from Pepper Hamilton, and the Education Law Center, are asking that the Honorable Edward G. Smith, U.S. District Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, certify a class for students like Issa and Hassan; declare that the district has violated federal education law; and, more simply, that they provide sufficient language supports to give older immigrant students a fighting chance at understanding a curriculum taught in English. They’re also asking that kids not be funneled into Phoenix based on their language ability and age. “Phoenix is supposed to be a ‘choice’ school,” said ACLU-PA staff attorney Molly Tack-Hooper, “but the district doesn’t give these kids a choice.” The plaintiffs argue that SDOL’s treatment of these older immigrant students constitutes “irreparable harm.”

But for people like Hassan, it’s about something more than that.

Tuesday he described being bullied by Phoenix students who would do things like kick the door of the bathroom stall while he was inside. They would yell things at him — things he didn’t understand — and then walk away, laughing. He felt like he couldn’t tell anyone that he was being messed with. He had no one who he could turn to. First he avoided using the bathroom. Eventually, pushed by his frustrations about learning nothing at Phoenix and being bullied, he simply decided to stop attending school.

In an exchange with Judge Smith toward the end of his testimony, the judge asked Qasin Hassan how he felt when he learned that his family would be moving to the U.S. His interpreter, a woman with white hair, transmitting his testimony to the court, interpreted for him.

“Happiest person in the world,” she said, speaking for Hassan. “America is number one.”

Then Judge Smith asked Hassan whether his experience at Phoenix had made him think less of the country he and his family had waited so long to be a part of. Was he disappointed, the judge asked, when Hassan got to America and realized it wasn’t what he expected?

In the courtroom, Hassan replied in Arabic, but the woman interpreting Hassan’s answers raised her hand to her mouth and turned away. She’d begun to cry and needed a moment to gather herself. A few seconds later she looked toward Judge Smith and translated what Hassan said.

“I didn’t get the education or opportunity I’d expected.”

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Matt Stroud joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania in 2016 as a criminal justice researcher and writer. Prior to joining the ACLU, Matt held staff reporting positions with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News, and has written for publications including Esquire, The Intercept, Politico, The Atlantic, and The Nation, as well as newspapers and magazines throughout Pennsylvania.