The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York today announced a settlement agreement that protects immigrant students’ right to equal educational opportunities in Utica and provides a model for how New York school districts can ensure that English language learners are not segregated into inferior alternative programs without their full knowledge and consent.

“Today’s agreement recognizes that no child in New York should be shortchanged on their education,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “No one benefits when kids who have come to New York fleeing violence or poverty are denied their shot at the American dream. We hope the new policies for Utica will serve as a model for change for other districts that discriminate against immigrant children.”

New York law guarantees a free, public education to youth younger than 21 who have not earned a diploma. Nonetheless, refugee and immigrant students often face barriers to enrollment, such as being funneled into inadequate alternative programs that deny them the opportunity to get degrees, take basic classes or socialize and integrate with other students. Today’s agreement is the result of a lawsuit, Tuyizere v. Utica, filed in 2015 on behalf of six refugee students who were excluded from public high school in Utica.

“This agreement puts in place critical checks to ensure that vulnerable immigrant kids are not cheated out of their education and future by being diverted from high school to alternative programs,” said Phil Desgranges, staff attorney at the NYCLU and lead counsel on the case. “We look forward to working with the state to ensure that all school districts have similar checks in place.”

Nearly one-in-six Utica residents is a refugee, and the city is a safe haven for those fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. Yet the Utica City School District and school administrators began excluding refugees in 2007 from the city’s high school who are older than 16 with limited English proficiency and diverting them to segregated and inferior alternative programs.

Patrick Tuyizere, the lead plaintiff, was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda after escaping conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When he moved to Utica, he was placed in a segregated, English language learner-only GED program rather than being allowed to attend high school. Since the NYCLU and LSCNY filed the lawsuit, Patrick, along with the other students named in the suit, have been permitted to enroll in Utica’s Proctor High School.

“I’m happy and proud to see that others like me will be able to go to school without going through the same obstacles that I faced,” said Patrick, speaking through an interpreter, as did all of the students. “For me, being able to go to high school has given me more options for my future. I plan to graduate high school next year, and then study engineering in college.”

“We have always known that public education is the silver bullet for helping people rise out of poverty,” said Samuel C. Young, Director of Advocacy at LSCNY. “When refugees and other immigrants come to our communities, the first thing they seek is access to public education for their children. Only through full and equal participation in our public school system can immigrant children become part of the fabric of American society. We brought this lawsuit to ensure that an equal education is available to every student in Utica, and this settlement brings us closer to that goal becoming a reality.”

Under the agreement, the Utica City School District agrees to proactively engage with all English language learner students and establishes high school as the default education choice for all students, such that students who don’t want to attend high school must opt-out. The agreement, which will last four years with bi-annual reporting to the NYCLU and LSCNY, contains the following major provisions requiring the district to:

  • Contact all school-age students the refugee center has documented over the last four years who aren’t enrolled in the high school and explain to them their right to enroll. They must obtain a written waiver for every student who chooses not to enroll in high school.
  • Meet every new English language learner student who goes to the refugee center along with an interpreter. They must explain to students their right to attend the high school, how alternate programs are different, and obtain a written waiver from every student who doesn’t want to enroll.
  • Undergo public education efforts at 17 locations in Utica in five languages advising English language learners about their right to attend high school and how to contact the district.
  • Follow up every year with school-age English language learner students enrolled in a GED program and again offer them the chance to transfer to the high school and obtain a written record if they opt-out.
  • Annually train all people involved in school registration in Utica on laws and policies regarding properly enrolling English language learner students.
  • Maintain policies and trainings that comply with these laws and policies.
  • Appoint a compliance coordinator to comply with the settlement.
  • Permit the six students who filed the lawsuit the chance to attend school past their 21st birthday to compensate for the time they were wrongly denied their education.

“I’m really happy about this settlement. Now there is a chance that other kids like me can go to school,” said Ado Lar, a plaintiff who was granted refugee status fearing the Myanmar military and came to Utica when he was 17. Ado had been educated in a Thai public school and wanted to be an engineer, but there were no classes outside of ESL at the alternative program in Utica where he was enrolled, and where he could not have received a diploma or GED.

Buddhi Bolon-Tamang came to Utica when she was 17 from a Nepali refugee camp, after the Bhutanese military forcibly expelled her family’s ethnic group from Nepal. Proctor High School denied her enrollment, nearly thwarting her dream to become a doctor for disabled people, because her grandparents are disabled.

“I am very happy to go to high school because I now have the opportunity to fulfill my dream. In the future, I want to be a doctor and work with differently abled people to improve their lives,” said Buddhi. “I am happy to know that, because of this settlement, other kids like me can go to high school and achieve their dreams, too.”

“Because of the courage of our plaintiffs, newly arrived immigrants between the ages of 16 and 20 will never again be told that they are too old to attend Proctor High School,” said Susan Young, staff attorney at LSCNY. “The entire community benefits when these new Americans are permitted to attend school, learn English, and prepare for a productive life after graduation.”

After the NYCLU and LSCNY filed their 2015 lawsuit, the New York Attorney General’s Office followed with its own lawsuit against the Utica School District for barring immigrants from the district’s only public high school.

The attorneys joining Desgranges from the NYCLU on this litigation are Alexis Karteron, Arthur Eisenberg and Sam Thypin-Bermeo, and, from Legal Services of Central New York, joining Susan Young and Sam Young is Adam Crowley

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