Families told to ‘Learn English’ Sue NY Department of Education

by Leanna Robinson

A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of four families in New York along with the Alliance for Families with Developmental Need (AFDN) against New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) after allegedly being refused translation services and told to ‘learn English’. The parents filing the case are Limited English Proficient (LEP) and have children with severe developmental disabilities. The lawsuit was launched by Legal Services NYC, a community-based non-profit organization that provides free civil legal assistance to low-income residents of New York City. The families involved primarily speak, read, and write in either Spanish or Mandarin.

One of the plaintiffs is Veronica Garcia. She is the mother of a an eight-year-old non-verbal female student with autism and is a native Spanish speaker and is LEP. Garcia states that despite notifying the NYDOE that Spanish was the language spoken in her home, her daughter’s school consistently sent notices such as those informing about flu shots, shortened school days, and lead testing of water to her in English along with consistently failing to provide interpretation for phone calls. Her daughter suffers from asthma, and throughout the 2017-2018 school year, Garcia received multiple emergency phone calls from the school nurse but all calls were in English.

Her daughter then came home from school with a cracked front tooth and a dark bruise on her head. When asked why she was not informed, school staff gave conflicting reports about what occurred in English. When her daughter began to come home with bruises on her arms, shoulders, and back on a weekly basis, Garcia sent a note in Spanish to the school to inquire about the injuries which was ignored. When her daughter’s academic ability declined, Garcia received phone calls in English about it, to which she responded “I do not understand English. Please use an interpreter. Please call in Spanish.” The school staff continued to only speak in English.

Another plaintiff, Marcela Hernandez, has a 17 year old daughter with limited verbal abilities, and speaks Spanish and is LEP. Hernandez also received all notifications in English despite indicating that she speaks Spanish, and on one occasion when she asked if there was a Spanish interpreter for a meeting, responded by saying “why don’t you learn English?” On other occasions when Hernandez called the school and asked for an interpreter, she was told by staff “just try to tell me in English.”

Another parent, Hui Qin Liu speaks Chinese and has an eight-year-old nonverbal daughter who suffers from seizures. When she requested a Chinese interpreter on the phone staff members hung up the phone, and when staff called her to indicate that her daughter had seizure, they did so in English only. On one occasion, her daughter had a seizure so severe she had to be sent to the hospital. The driver who called Liu only spoke English.

Another parent, who is known only as Jane Doe speaks Chinese and has an eight-year-old son with autism. Despite indicating that Chinese was spoken in her home, all documents sent to her were in English. When her son came home with open wounds and bruises, Doe called the school to discuss the issue but they refused to offer an interpreter. When she went to the school a staff who spoke limited Chinese offered her an inadequate translation and Doe was not able to grasp what happened to her son. On a separate occasion a staff member told Doe that “since we all live in the United States,” Doe should learn English.

The United States Department of Justice and DOE state that school districts must provide language access to LEP parents with “appropriate, competent staff or appropriate and competent outside resources.” It is not sufficient to use bilingual staff. The school district should ensure that interpreters are competent to translate in and out of English and that interpreter and translators are trained on the role of interpreter and translator, the ethics of interpretation and translation and the need to maintain confidentiality. In addition, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) require that children with disabilities have access to free appropriate public education that is designed to meet their unique needs.

The lawsuit states that, “Despite knowledge of the Individual Plaintiffs’ LEP status, NYCDOE has consistently engaged in a pattern and practice of failing to provide these parents with the interpretation and translation services they need to be able to participate in their children’s educations in a manner equal to their English proficient counterparts.” It goes on the state that, “…none of the Individual Plaintiffs received a translated copy of Progress Reports, Behavioral Intervention Plans, Functional Behavior Assessments, Psycho-educational Evaluation, or other educational assessments used in developing their child’s IEPs, all of which are documents vital to a parent’s ability to understand and participate in their child’s education.”

"I was horrified to learn that the NYC DOE has repeatedly denied interpretation and translation services to parents in this City," said New York State Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz. "The DOE has marginalized perhaps the most vulnerable members of our school community—LEP parents of students with disabilities who depend and trust the DOE to provide quality educational services and support to their children. New York City holds itself out to be a beacon of inclusion and opportunity. The idea that the NYC DOE refused language access to parents and told to "learn English" is appalling. I applaud Legal Services NYC for filing this complaint against the NYC DOE and for taking the lead on securing justice for these families and others like them around the city."

"Every parent deserves information, of any kind, regarding their child's education communicated to them in the language they speak," said New York State Senator John C. Liu. "In these cases, parents were not only denied a critical role in their child's education plans, they were not properly alerted when their child's physical safety was in harm's way. The DOE has caused these families trauma. Moreover, they are in violation of the basic law that every child is entitled to a high-quality public school education."

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