Utica, NY, nicknamed “The Second Chance City,” has become known for its thriving immigrant communities. Sadly, this “Town That Loves Refugees” won’t let Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students enroll in its public high school. Now six determined teenagers are suing the school district for their right to an education.
One of the plaintiffs is 19-year-old Patrick Tuyizere, who was born in a Rwandan refugee camp after his parents fled genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After a 17-year wait, the family was allowed into the United States, where they hoped to establish their new life. They arrived first in Baltimore, where Tuyizere started his freshman year of high school, only to move one month later when his family needed to find work.
As soon as they reached Utica, they began the paperwork to enroll Tuyizere in Proctor High School, the only high school in the district. This time, his request was denied. Because Tuyizere was 17 at the time and spoke limited English, the school district deemed him “too old” to begin high school. Instead, officials enrolled him in an alternative program that offered English instruction and GED training.
Tuyizere and his family were frustrated. The alternate program provided only minimal education, rather than the broad subject matter he had hoped to learn in high school. He would also miss out on one of the most exciting, formative experiences for American teenagers; he would have no extra-curricular activities, no sports team, and little opportunity to meet American friends.
Tuyizere is not alone. Over the last decade, the Utica school district has been redirecting LEP refugees over the age of 16 into alternate, ESL-based programs — denying them a high school education. Utica Lawyer Phil Desgranges told NPR,
"It was an open secret that refugees just knew within the community that once you were at a certain age and you're arriving in the country, you're just not going to get a chance to go to high school.”
Such treatment is not only unjust; it is also illegal. Federal and state laws guarantee public education until age 21, regardless of LEP status.
Now six refugee students, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York, have brought a class-action lawsuit against the school district. In addition to Patrick Tuyizere, the plaintiffs include Suk Maya Rai (18 years old, from Bhutan), BBT (17, Bhutan), Ali JaNar (19, Myanmar), Cho Cho Win (19, Myanmar), and Ado Lar (18, Myanmar). They hope to secure the right to attend public high school, not only for themselves but also for other young refugees like them.
The good news? These students and their advocates are already making a difference. Tuyizere and four of the other plaintiffs now attend Proctor High School. The case has also brought to light many similar instances of national origin discrimination in schools, in New York and nationwide. It can serve as a catalyst for needed change.
Building a new life on the other side of the globe is already a monumental task. Let’s not bar the way for young refugees who just want to go to school.
Banner Image Credit: Wikimedia, Joaquin Sosa