Public schools in Utica are unlawfully excluding refugee youth and segregating them to inferior alternative programs that offer no opportunity to earn a high school diploma, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six refugee students and a class of similar immigrant students who have been excluded from public high school despite the fact that New York law guarantees a free, public education to youth younger than 21 who have not earned a diploma.

“Young people are coming to Utica after fleeing violence and persecution only to be shut out by the city’s only public high school,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “All children have the equal right to an education. No one benefits when a school district denies kids their shot at the American dream and limits their ability to contribute to society.”

Over the last 35 years, Utica has become a safe haven for refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, and nearly one-in-six Utica residents is a refugee. But once there, many young people are encountering barriers they did not anticipate. Since 2007, the Utica City School District and school administrators have been excluding refugees from the city’s high school who are older than 16 with limited English proficiency.

Instead of educating them, the lawsuit charges, Utica’s school district diverts refugees between 17- and 20-years-old to two alternative programs. The first is the “Newcomer Program” housed at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, where the only class offered is English as a Second Language, and students cannot earn a diploma or even a GED. There are no classes in subjects like math, science or history.

Although Utica receives federal funds for educating limited English proficient students, the district provides neither instructional services nor funding to the Newcomer Program. Only one non-certified teacher serves approximately 30 students, and the program relies on private donations for textbooks and school supplies. Because the refugee students are not enrolled in the public schools, they do not qualify for subsidized lunch. Consequently, apart from the rare occasion when volunteers donate rice, most students who do not bring their own lunch go without food during the school day.

The second program, the “APPLE Program,” is a GED program located outside of the city in New Hartford, New York. The Utica school district does not allow refugee students into its own GED program.

Patrick Tuyizere, a plaintiff, was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda after escaping conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When he first arrived in the United States at age 17, he lived in Baltimore, where he was allowed to attend high school. But when he moved to Utica a few months later with the dream of becoming a doctor, he was placed in a GED program rather than being allowed to attend high school.

“I came to the United States hoping to go to school so that I might become a medical doctor,” said Patrick, speaking through an interpreter, as did all of the plaintiffs. “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.”

Plaintiff Suk Maya Rai’s family fled Bhutan after fearing persecution. Before coming to Utica when she was 17, she lived in a Nepali refugee camp where she was taught six subjects. Now in the Utica Newcomer Program, she wants to become a nurse, but is given no instruction in any subjects other than English, nor can she earn a diploma or degree.

“I heard that this country offers a great education. My ambition is to become a nurse, and I hope that I will be able to take classes like science,” said Suk.

Plaintiff Cho Cho Win also came to Utica when she was 17 when her family, fearing the Myanmar military, was granted refugee status. She wants to become a teacher, but as a student in the Newcomer Program, she is not learning any subjects like science or history, nor can she earn a diploma or degree.

“I want to become a teacher so I must go to college, but I’m not able to go to school,” said Cho Cho. “I’m unhappy that I’m not learning.”

Plaintiff Ado Lar was granted refugee status fearing the Myanmar military and came to Utica when he was 17. Before that he was a refugee in Thailand and was educated in a Thai public school. He wants to become an engineer. Although he tries to read as much as he can, in Utica, there are no classes outside of ESL available for him in the Newcomer Program, and he will not receive a diploma or degree.

“The United States has good schools, but I cannot attend any classes in this program nor anywhere else,” said Ado. “I try to absorb as much knowledge as I can, but I am worried about my future and if I can become an engineer.”

The plaintiffs’ experiences are not unique for refugee youth between 17- and 20-years-old in Utica. The few limited English proficient students who have been admitted to the Utica high school have needed a lawyer or other advocate to insist upon their admission. Before 2014, the district did not even test refugee students to determine their level of English proficiency before placing them in the Newcomer Program.

In December 2014, after widespread reports that school districts across New York State denied immigrant students access to public education, the New York Attorney General’s office and the State Department of Education revised regulations to provide greater procedural protections to immigrant children.

“Across the state, school districts are refusing to enroll young people who are immigrants or limited English proficient, instead placing them in inappropriate or inadequate programs,” said Phil Desgranges, NYCLU staff attorney. “Districts like Utica have a constitutional obligation to educate all young people, including undocumented immigrants and refugees.”

“These students came to the United States from refugee camps across the world, seeking safety, security and a better way of life,” said Susan Young, staff attorney at LSCNY. “While our country has opened its doors to the students, the Utica City School District has barred its doors, in violation of federal and state law, preventing these students from taking their first steps towards achieving their American Dreams.”

Joining Desgranges and Young to prepare this lawsuit are Alexis Karteron and Arthur Eisenberg of the NYCLU and Sam Young of Legal Services of Central New York.

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