- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Civil rights lawyers have sued a third U.S. school district over what they call a practice of denying older refugee and immigrant students a meaningful education by steering them to alternative high schools.

The plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Pennsylvania are refugees ages 17 to 21 who came to the U.S. from Myanmar, Sudan and other war-torn countries.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the Lancaster School District has steered at least 30 students over three years to a disciplinary high school, denying them the classes and services offered at the traditional high school.

Some of the students had been in refugee camps for years, said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which filed the suit along with the Education Law Center and others.

“Preventing them from learning English and going to school and mingling with American students is preventing them from being able to successfully integrate into our society,” he said.

Civil rights groups have filed at least two similar lawsuits around the country. An ACLU lawsuit in Utica, New York, was settled with an agreement that the plaintiffs could attend the traditional high school, Walczak said. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a suit pending in Collier County, Florida.

Many states, including Pennsylvania, allow students to pursue a high school diploma through the school year in which they turn 21.

Lancaster has seen an influx of refugees and other immigrants, partly through the help of resettlement programs. About 17 percent of the district’s 11,300 students are English language learners while 4.5 percent are refugees, according to the district website.

School officials said the lawsuit had no merit.

“The district will continue to be on the cutting edge in developing programs that are unique, such as establishing our Refugee Welcoming Center, after-school programs and special summer programs for refugee students,” the district said in a statement.

The lawsuit said the alternative school, run by a contractor, has fewer transition services, a poor teacher-student ratio, and no advanced placement classes.

The Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University’s law school examined the issue of immigrant education for a report published in April. Researchers found that school districts sometimes discourage older teens from starting high school if they won’t finish by age 21.

“Because they usually have little formal education, due to their circumstances in their home countries, when they tried to enroll in normal education systems here, they were really discouraged or flat-out barred due to their age,” researcher Raimy Reyes said. “Many children just face flat-out age discrimination.”

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This story has been corrected to say that the two similar lawsuits were filed by civil rights groups, not only the ACLU.

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