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Wake County's Families of ELLs Need Translations, Complaint Alleges

From guest blogger Jaclyn Zubrzycki

In Wake County, North Carolina, parents who are not fluent in English do not receive the translation services they need to understand some public school documents involving their children, says a complaint filed against the district today with the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights by a pair of advocacy groups.

The school district is now 15 percent Latino. Half of those students, and potentially more of their parents, are not fluent in English, according to the complaint, which was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Advocates for Children's Services (ACS), part of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Though the school system does provide translated versions of some documents, certain special education and disciplinary actions are written in English. The SPLC and ACS argue that, by not translating documents for parents it knows are not fluent in English, the district places a burden on those parents to request translation. The complaint features the stories of three students represented by the ACS whose parents were not provided with Spanish-language materials about school suspensions and special education plans.

For instance:

T.H., a 9th grade Latina student with a learning disability, was placed on an Individualized Education Program (IEP)—a plan that lists the special education and related services for the student. Her mother understands little spoken or written English and was never given a copy of the IEP in Spanish.
When the 9th grader was recommended for suspension, the letter and notice of suspension were provided in English only. When the assistant principal called to discuss the suspension with the student's mother, he spoke in English and did not have a translator. T.H.'s mother understood little of what he said and could not ask questions.

The SPLC and ACS had filed a letter warning the district about their complaint in May, which the district responded to with a letter listing its outreach programs to Latinos and other efforts. The SPLC and ACS found the district's response to be insufficient: "The district was unwilling to commit to automatic translation of even the most crucial documents—special education materials and notices of long-term suspension," said ACS attorney Peggy Nicholson in a written statement. "If the district is truly dedicated to ensuring that the civil rights of its most vulnerable students are protected, a stronger remedy is necessary."

The complaint cites Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 among other federal statutes as evidence that the district needs to "take reasonable steps to ensure that non-English speaking students have a meaningful opportunity to participate in education programs," which includes providing translated materials to these parents.

Civil rights have spent a lot of time in the spotlight in Wake County in recent years. The district's busing program, designed to foster racial and socioeconomic integration, was ended in 2010 by a conservative school board. The end of the busing program and the district's high rate of suspensions of students of color (Latino students, for instance, are 2.6 times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, according to this complaint) made it the target of an ongoing investigation by the federal civil rights office. The county's school board turned over some of its membership last year, and the district is now using a "controlled choice" plan for school enrollment, as my colleague Christina Samuels reported this fall

As of press time, the district had not responded to Education Week's requests for comments on the complaint.

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