A.G. Schneiderman Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Utica City School District Regarding Enrollment Barriers Faced by Immigrant and Refugee Students

The Utica City School District Deliberately Excluded Immigrants Between The Ages of 17-20 From Enrolling In The Local High School

Schneiderman: Access to Equal Educational Opportunities Is Fundamental To the American Dream

UTICA – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced the filing of a civil rights lawsuit against the Utica City School District (“District”) alleging that the District discriminated against immigrant students by denying them access to equal educational opportunities.  Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, the lawsuit specifically alleges that, since at least 2007, the District has diverted immigrant students above the age of 16 away from the local high school, Proctor High School, and into alternative programs that were academic dead-ends.  The District’s practices have effectively deprived many in Utica’s diverse community of refugees and immigrants opportunity to obtain meaningful education and a high school diploma. 

“Every New Yorker under the age of twenty-one has a right to attend public school in the District in which they reside, regardless of immigration status or national origin,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “Access to a quality education is the foundation of the American Dream.  School districts cannot place arbitrary impediments and barriers in the way of immigrants and refugees who have struggled to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.”

The lawsuit alleges that the District for years engaged in a pattern of conduct designed to prevent immigrant students above the age of 16 from enrolling in Proctor High School.  Specifically, the District required any student it perceived to be limited English proficient to provide immigration documents as proof of age.  The District would then review those documents, and divert students over the age of 16 into alternative education services separate and apart from the general program offered at Proctor High School.  The District’s practices pushed out not only recently arrived refugees, but also individuals who had spent several years in U.S. high schools in other states and who had only recently transferred to Utica.

The lawsuit also alleges that the District funneled these immigrant students into alternative programs that were effectively roads to nowhere.  The programs offered to immigrant students above the age of sixteen did not provide an opportunity to obtain credits towards a high school diploma, and did not adequately prepare students to take the high school equivalency exam.  Instead, the programs were academic dead-ends, leading some students to spend upwards of two years learning little more than skills in basic English.  Students that sought to transition from these programs into Proctor were denied that opportunity by District officials and were often left to age out or drop out. 

The lawsuit further alleges that these alternative educational programs resulted in the segregation of immigrant students from non-immigrant students.  Immigrant students above the age of 16 were instructed in buildings that were physically separate from non-immigrant students; they ate lunch separate from non-immigrant students; they did not attend gym, art, or music classes with non-immigrant students did not participate in extra-curricular activities with non-immigrant students; and even required to ride buses separate and apart from non-immigrant students. 

In October 2014, the OAG and the New York State Education Department (“SED”) issued guidance to all school districts in the state on their enrollment obligations under the Supreme Court’s nondiscrimination mandate in Plyler v. Doe.  Specifically, the guidance required that all school districts refrain from inquiring into the immigration status of any prospective student so as to avoid the effect of chilling enrollment of any eligible prospective student.  After issuing this guidance, SED issued an emergency amendment to Commissioner’s Regulation 100.2(y) which made clear the kinds of inquiries school districts were permitted to make when conducting residency determinations.  Following this, the OAG entered into agreements with over twenty school districts across the state to amend their enrollment materials and policies to ensure that individuals were not being discriminated against on the basis of their national origin or citizenship/immigration status.

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. § 1703, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq., the New York State Education Law, New York Education Law § 3202(1) and New York Education Law § 3201, the New York State Constitution and the United States Constitution.

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Justin Deabler, Diane Lucas, and Ajay Saini of the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau, which is led by Bureau Chief Kristen Clarke. Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice is Alvin Bragg.

The Attorney General's Office is committed to protecting all New Yorkers from unlawful discrimination. To file a civil rights complaint, contact the Attorney General’s Office at (212) 416-8250civil.rights@ag.ny.gov or visit www.ag.ny.gov.

A copy of today's complaint can be read here.

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