Four parents are suing the city's Department of Education for failing to provide them with language and translation services for their disabled children, saying that school officials repeatedly, and at times callously, denied them access to translators and translated documents about important issues ranging from academic progress to health and safety.
Among the allegations in the complaint is that of Marcela Hernandez, the Staten Island mother of a 17-year-old student with autism, whose request for a Spanish interpreter prior to a school meeting was met with a staff member telling her, "Why don't you learn English?"
The civil rights lawsuit, which was filed this week in federal District Court by Legal Services NYC, raises serious questions about the DOE’s commitment to serving a significant demographic in the New York City public school system, that of non-native English-speaking parents. The DOE does not appear to track the number of non-English speaking parents with children enrolled in city schools. But a 2015 report by the New York Immigration Coalition found that nearly half of New York City public school students speak a language other than English at home, and that there were “serious barriers” for parents seeking translation and interpretation services.
"We’re talking about New York City, a huge metropolis with a huge system and budget,” said Amy Leipziger, a senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC. “That’s also what’s really galling about this."
Back in 2008, Mayor Bloomberg passed a law requiring every New York City agency to provide language services based on at least the top six languages spoken by the population of New York City. But as Leipziger noted, all of the cases in the lawsuit involve parents who spoke Spanish and Chinese, two of the most commonly spoken foreign languages in New York City.
City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has highlighted his own experience of growing up in a Spanish-speaking family and having to learn English in public school. He recently overhauled the DOE's services for English language learners.
The latest legal challenge focuses on a specific subsection of public school families with limited English proficiency: those who have children with disabilities who are enrolled in special education programs. According to Legal Services, the case is the first of its kind against the DOE to be brought in federal court. In 2012, two advocacy groups brought a civil rights complaint to the federal Department of Education, citing “systematic denial of language services to limited English proficient parents of children with special needs.”
The investigation involving that complaint is still ongoing.
All four of the parents who are suing the DOE had children who were enrolled in District 75, city-wide schools and programs that are dedicated to serving students with complex special needs such as autism.
The schools in District 75 are currently one of three districts undergoing a pilot program that centralizes translation services, allowing schools to tap into the DOE’s Translation and Interpretation Unit for assistance.
Among the services offered by the pilot program are translations of a regularly updated report known as Individualized Education Program (IEP), a mandated legal document required for special education students which tracks their progress and prescribes different services such as speech or physical therapy. Federal law requires that parents have "informed consent" over their childrens’ IEPs, meaning that they must understand and agree to the services in writing.
Veronica Garcia, one of the mothers in the lawsuit, told Gothamist on Friday through a Spanish translator that she had asked for help several times in deciphering her daughter's IEP but was often ignored. Her daughter, 8, who attends a school in Staten Island, has autism.
“How would I know my daughter is receiving the therapy she needs?” she said with frustration. “I’m her mother. I need to know what is going on.”
In several cases cited in the complaint, the failure to provide translation services by public school officials extended to urgent and emergency health situations.
During the 2017-2018 school year, Garcia said she received multiple calls from the nurse about her daughter, who has asthma. All of those calls were in English, according to the complaint. This occurred despite the fact that the DOE contracts with Language Line, a service which provides on-demand phone interpretation in over 180 languages, including Spanish and Mandarin.
When Garcia asked why she was not being called by a Spanish-speaking individual, she said she was told that the nurse did not speak Spanish and did not know how to use the telephone interpreter.
The complaint cites another parent, Hui Qin Liu, who received a call from her daughter’s bus driver telling her that her 8-year-old daughter had had a seizure and was being taken to the emergency room. Liu, a native Mandarin speaker, was only able to make out the name of the hospital.
On another occasion, her daughter, who attends a school in Queens, came home with bite marks on her body. After submitting a written request for an explanation, she received a phone call in English.
Once again, she understood little of what was said.
Reached for comment, Danielle Filson, a DOE spokeswoman, emailed the following statement:
“Advancing equity now means serving our multilingual special education students and their families. This year we’ve launched the IEP translation pilot program, increased the number of bilingual special education programs by 16 percent, and announced the Bronx Plan, which includes salary increases for bilingual special education teachers in underserved neighborhoods. We know there is more work to do and we will continue to expand our programs to meet the needs of our multilingual students with disabilities.”