Refugees Reach Settlement In Legal Fight To Attend N.Y. High School

May 20, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 5:37 pm

A legal battle between refugee students and the school district of Utica, N.Y., may soon come to an end.

A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit claiming that refugees in Utica, a Rust Belt city located about four hours north of New York City, have been illegally blocked from attending the local high school.

New York state residents, regardless of citizenship, have a right to attend a public high school and earn a diploma until they turn 21. Two federal lawsuits filed last year contend that some refugee students have been denied that right in Utica, once called "The Town That Loves Refugees" by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

For almost a decade, the district allegedly discriminated against refugees over 16, who are not required to attend school under state law. Instead of allowing them to enroll at Proctor High School, the lawsuits claim the district diverted the refugee students to alternative programs mainly to learn English or attend GED classes, and they missed out on the opportunity to earn high school diplomas.

The school district has now agreed to settle one lawsuit filed by six refugee students represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York. If approved by a judge, a consent decree would resolve the case. The settlement would put in place procedures to ensure that eligible refugees, including those who arrive in Utica in the future, know about their right to attend high school before making decisions. The school district would also have to put up posters around the city and train staff every year on how to enroll refugee students.

"We deny that anyone did anything wrong in respect to any of its students," says the school district's attorney, Donald Gerace.

Five of the six refugees who filed the lawsuit currently attend Proctor High School, according to one of their attorneys, Phil Desgranges. They would be allowed to continue studying there after they turn 21 to compensate for the high school time they missed, according to the terms of the settlement.

One of the students, Cho Cho Win, recently decided to stop attending the high school to pursue a GED instead — a choice that, Desgranges says, this consent decree will make sure future refugee students can make for themselves.

"That's a fundamental change in how things have been working in Utica," Desgranges says.

The district is still facing a similar lawsuit in federal court filed by the New York state attorney general. A settlement conference is scheduled for June 13.

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