A.G. Schneiderman Announces Settlement Of Lawsuit Against Utica City School District To Ensure Equal Educational Opportunities For Immigrant And Refugee Students

News from Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 
July 21, 2016

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A.G. SCHNEIDERMAN ANNOUNCES SETTLEMENT OF LAWSUIT AGAINST UTICA CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT TO ENSURE EQUAL EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE STUDENTS

Schneiderman: My Office Is Committed To Ensuring That Every Child Has Access To Education Regardless of Immigrant Or Refugee Status

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced the settlement of a lawsuit against the Utica City School District ensuring equal educational opportunities for immigrant and refugee students. The complaint in that suit, filed in November 2015, alleged that the District denied enrollment to immigrant and refugee students above the age of sixteen in the District’s only public high school, and instead diverted those students to inferior, and segregated, alternative education programs.  The consent decree settling the lawsuit requires the District to create new policies to ensure that such students can be enrolled in high school, as well as to retain an internal Administrator and an external Independent Monitor to ensure compliance with the agreement and with federal and state laws.  Moreover, the District will offer compensatory educational services to all immigrant students who experienced delays or denials of enrollment, and will ensure that any future alternative education program offered by the District meet standards prescribed by federal law.  

“Full and equal access to education is not only a legal right, it is the very foundation of the American Dream,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “School districts should not place unnecessary barriers in the way of students seeking enrollment.  Our country and state were built in part by the significant labors of immigrants, and my office is committed to ensuring that New York’s education system is open to any and all children, regardless of race, national origin, English language proficiency, or immigrant or refugee status.”

The Attorney General began looking into the District’s practices as part of its joint compliance review with the New York State Education Department of enrollment policies and procedures of school districts across New York State, in order to determine whether districts were impermissibly discriminating against students or prospective students on the basis of immigration status.  To date the Attorney General has entered into agreements with twenty-two school districts as part of this initiative, including one with the Westbury Union Free School District in February 2016, which engaged in similar underlying conduct as that alleged in the Attorney General’s complaint against the Utica City School District.  Those agreements ensure that immigrant students – many of them unaccompanied minors – have full and equal access to educational opportunities.

The City of Utica is a major resettlement center for refugees coming to the United States from around the world, including from the countries of Vietnam, Myanmar, Russia, Ukraine, and Somalia; many of these refugees fled ethnic persecution in their home countries.  According to the 2010 Census, approximately eighteen percent of Utica’s total population was born outside of the U.S., and over a quarter speaks a language other than English at home.  The area served by the District has one of the largest proportions of limited English proficient households in New York, with more than one in ten households having no member over the age of fourteen who speaks English “very well.”

In March 2015 the Attorney General opened a formal investigation into the Utica City School District alleging that the District discriminated against immigrant and limited English proficient individuals above the age of sixteen, on the basis of national origin and immigration status.  After several attempts to resolve the investigation failed, in November 2015 the Attorney General filed suit against the District in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.  Today’s consent decree resolves that complaint.

In its complaint, the Attorney General alleged that the District created and implemented a policy in 2007 that denied enrollment into the District’s only public high school, Thomas R. Proctor High School, to any student over the age of 16 who had limited English proficiency.  The complaint further alleged that the District rigorously enforced this policy through the efforts of senior District officials, its central office administrative staff, high school staff, and staff located at a local refugee center.  Rather than allow these students to enroll in high school, the District diverted them into alternative programs that provided English as a Second Language classes, or provided minimal preparation for the high school equivalency exam, but could not result in a high school diploma.  As a result, the complaint alleged, dozens of newly arrived immigrants and refugees above the age of sixteen were deprived of any opportunity to attend classes with their high school peers or to earn credits toward a diploma.  The complaint alleged that the District’s conduct violated federal and state laws, as well as the guarantee of equal protection of the laws under the U.S. and New York Constitutions.

The consent decree entered into between the Attorney General and the District, subject to court approval, requires the District to do the following:

  • Modify District enrollment materials;
  • Develop new enrollment procedures governing the activity of District personnel responsible for enrollment and academic placement;
  • Develop training materials addressing permissible and impermissible inquiries in the enrollment process, and legal requirements concerning academic placement and the entitlement to a public education until a student turns 21, as well as annual training for relevant District personnel; 
  • Hire or designate a new Enrollment Administrator responsible for enrollment and throughout the District;
  • Retain an Independent Monitor to assure compliance with applicable law and the agreement;
  • Provide compensatory educational services to all immigrant students who were delayed or denied enrollment or diverted into non-degree bearing programs during the past four years; and
  • Obtain written pre-clearance authorization from the Attorney General before creating any new alternative education program for refugee or immigrant youth, or before counseling or referring such youth to any alternative program.

Lily Htoo, the English as a New Language Home School Coordinator for the Albany City School District, said, “I am happy to hear that the Attorney General has settled his lawsuit against the Utica City School District.  When I was eighteen years old, I moved to Utica after living in a refugee camp in Thailand for years.  When I arrived here, my English was very limited, but I took a friend who spoke better English to Proctor High School with me and tried to enroll.  An employee at the high told me I was too old to enroll there, and I was devastated.  I ended up working in casinos and factories for years, but I finally managed to enroll in Hudson Valley Community College, and then SUNY Albany, and recently graduated.  I always wanted to help refugees and immigrants because of what happened to me, and I did not want other refugees and immigrants to be denied the right to go to high school just because they arrived here when they were older.  That is why I took the job I have now.  I know the real benefits of allowing older immigrant students to attend high school, like the integration of students with non-refugees, avoiding the isolation that can happen to newly arrived immigrants, learning life skills, and learning about the culture here in the United States.”

“As a leading advocate and service provider for immigrants and resettled refugees in the State of New York, Catholic Charities is pleased the Attorney General has reached a settlement with the Utica City School District,” said Vincent W. Colonno, Statewide Chair of the New York State Council of Catholic Charities Directors.  “Now our communities can work to successfully welcome those who have been resettled in the United States due to war, conflict, and persecution in their home countries – especially children who are seeking an education.  Catholic Charities is proud to provide needed services throughout New York to assist immigrants, and we continue to stand for just and fair policies to give our new neighbors every chance at success.”

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Justin Deabler, Diane Lucas and Ajay Saini of the Civil Rights Bureau, with the assistance of bureau support staff.  The Bureau is led by Bureau Chief Lourdes Rosado and is part of the Division of Social Justice, which is led by Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice Alvin Bragg.

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