Monday, April 27, 2015

Refugee Lawsuit: A Helping Hand, Biting the Hand, or Something Else?

Utica has had a stellar record of being a welcoming haven for immigrants and refugees for at least a century -- so much so that the United Nations has called Utica the "Town that Loves Refugees." School doors have been open to such a variety of peoples that forty-two languages are spoken in Utica's schools! Utica can be proud of the stories of refugees who found success locally. These inspiring stories remind us of our own immigrant forebears to whom we owe so much.

So it came as quite a shock to learn from WKTV that the Utica School district is being sued for (allegedly) illegally denying refugee youth an education.  The OD also had an article. How is this possible in a school district renowned for its diversity?

A "helping hand?"

The complaint, brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union and its Central New York affiliate on behalf of six students and "others similarly situated,"
"challenges the Defendants’ policy and practice of excluding limited English proficient (“LEP”) immigrants aged 17-20 from Thomas R. Proctor High School (“Proctor High School”) in Utica, N.Y. . . . [1]
It alleges that
. . . For the last 8 years, Defendants have been excluding LEP immigrants (primarily refugees) over 16 years of age from Proctor High School, the only high school in Utica, and diverting them to alternative education programs.  . . . [3]
And it seeks
. . . an order requiring Defendants to enroll LEP immigrants aged 17-20 in Proctor High School if the immigrants want to go to high school, are residents of the Utica City School District, and have not yet turned 21 years old [among other "Relief" requested].
The suit claims, with specific reference to NY Ed Law 3202 (1), that individuals have the right "to attend the high school within their district" until they turn 21 or earn a high school diploma, that it must be the student's choice to attend an alternative program, and that  
For the last eight years, however, the Defendants have been robbing immigrant students of that choice." [4, emphasis supplied]
Wow!  The Utica school district "robs" immigrant students of "choice" -- and the "civil liberties" attorneys are lending a helping hand make sure that the students have this "choice?"

The complaint gives details of the students' ages, the countries they came from, the hardships they sustained, their native languages, the fact that they are "LEP," and their hopes and dreams (of being a doctor, nurse, teacher, engineer).  Every single one of them has spent 17 years in an overseas refugee camp, i.e., virtually their entire life in a world vastly different from Utica. Other than to mention that one student had been taught unspecified subjects at the camp, the complaint is totally silent on the students' educational achievement. The complaint's silence on this point makes it safe to assume they are uneducated.   But these students -- or rather, their lawyers -- insist they be able to attend high school which is grades 9-12.

Let's assume that all the allegations in the complaint are true. What happens if the plaintiffs get their wish? Assuming no language barrier, how well would students who are probably 8 to 10 years behind their peers in content learning and with little exposure to our culture do in a high school classroom?

For any student to be successful in a high school course, the student needs to have mastered the prerequisites. Without the prerequisites, the time spent in class is wasted.  Worse, frustration may set in that leads to behavior problems. It is not unusual for alternative settings to be created for such students -- and such are the best placement for them.

Now add (1) a language barrier and (2) lack of cultural context on top of (3) a lack of formal education. Allowing such students to attend regular high school classes rather than the district's alternative programs designed to teach English and cultural awareness would cause more harm than good. Some might call it educational malpractice! Should lawyers be aiding vulnerable, illiterate students to make bad choices?

Biting the hand?

While we can be proud of Utica's cultural diversity, the volume and variety of immigrant students taken into Utica schools has placed  financial burdens on local taxpayers -- taxpayers who are already burdened with some of the highest taxes in the nation. Now they will be burdened with the cost of a lawsuit, spending money on lawyers rather than education.

Regardless of the requirements of "the law," considering all that Utica has done to make refugees feel welcome, some Uticans will view this lawsuit as a "slap in the face" or as "biting the hand that feeds you" - a demonstration of ungratefulness, dissatisfaction, and sense of "entitlement" by newcomers. Over time, this could lead to a change in attitude and lead to Utica becoming a less-welcoming place. It would be a tragedy if that happens because that would represent a change in Utica's character.

While there are always those among us (immigrants and non-immigrants alike) who have that "sense of entitlement" and will institute lawsuits to assert "rights" on the flimsiest of pretexts to make a point (especially when someone else pays the bill), from what is known about these plaintiffs this does not seem to be the case.  Simply put, they are too new to America,  too unfamiliar with our customs, and too involved in learning how to survive to worry about an alleged "right" to attend Proctor High School. No, this lawsuit is not their "biting the hand." Rather, they are being prodded to do this by others with an agenda.

Something else?

The fact that a press release was issued and media contacted before the school district was even served with the complaint reveals a calculated effort to create a media buzz before the District could intelligently respond.  That does not demonstrate a sincere desire to solve a problem, but, rather a desire to play to public opinion.

The claim that the district was "robbing" the students of choice is unnecessarily inflammatory language that similarly evinces a desire to play to public opinion rather than solve a problem.

The complaint misstates NY Ed Law 3202 (1).  That provision does NOT state that individuals have the right "to attend the high school within their district" until they turn 21. Rather it states that  that such students are "entitled to attend the public schools maintained in the district in which such person resides without the payment of tuition.

How schooling of LEP students is to be accomplished is prescribed by NY Ed Law 3204 and regulations promulgated by the Commissioner of Education there under.  The complaint implies that Utica is not in compliance with NY law, mentions only one regulation pertaining to bilingual education, but then fails to demonstrate that the regulation even applies (see pleading #57).  [The NYCLU attorneys should read section 3204 thoroughly. Subdivision 3(a)(3) regarding courses of study will probably send some of them into orbit!]

If the Utica district does not comply with NY Law, why is not NYCLU working through the NYS Department of Education instead of proceeding directly to federal court and wasting that court's valuable time?  Did they not hear of the concept of "exhaustion of administrative remedies?" NYCLU Staff attorney Desgranges is quoted by WKTV as saying “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.” If this is a state-wide problem, it would seem that the appropriate course of action would be to go after the state, not Utica.

Mr. Desgranges then goes on to state that Utica has an obligation to educate "all young people, including undocumented immigrants and refugees." The complaint also references an obligation to the undocumented.  While that may be true, what does that have to do with this lawsuit?

Or is the NYCLU trying to pressure Utica to accept an expected wave of undocumented immigrants? Such has been reported to  be on the president's agenda.

Lastly, is it just coincidence that one of Utica's student immigrant success stories, who's bio reveals an amount of activism and political connection, also happens to be on the board of the suing NYCLU Central New York  chapter?  Nah . . . must be coincidence.

The lawsuit is neither a helping hand, nor biting the hand.  It's something else: a political agenda.


Anonymous said...

Ever stop to think about what the attraction is for influx of foreign refugees to Oneida County and Utica in particular? Is it availability of thousands of jobs, is it our high taxes and utility costs, is it the wonderful climate so much like their native countries,is it the prospect of living in the decaying housing in the inner city? Seems to me that the social service agencies that continue to bring refugees into this area are enriching themselves with increased budgets ,salaries,staffs and offices at the expense of school district and all who pay taxes in Oneida County.

Anonymous said...

From my reading of this the Utica School District knew what it was/is doing by funneling kids to sub-standard programs - and seemed to change programs when it became apparent the first one was failing - and now the Utica Tax Payers will pay.

"Districts like Utica have a constitutional obligation to educate all young people"

Whether you agree or disagree with the underlining circumstances the simple fact is this: You need to do things right to begin with otherwise down the road.....

Strikeslip said...

I agree anonymous 501. The district needs to do things right to prevent later problems. However people with baseless claims will create problems anyway, so it becomes necessary to call those situations out. This is one of those.

First, the district did provide an education...perhaps not the one that is being requested, but the one in the best judgment of the district will do these students the most good.

Second, for there to be "substandard" education, there must be a standard. NYS sets those standards. However the complaint fails to specifically identify and demonstrate a violation of ANY standard.

The lawsuit is frivolous and is designed to further a political agenda. It is time these situations be identified for what they are.