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Refugee Files Suit Over Language Instruction

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A 16-year-old Cambodian refugee, classified recently as mentally retarded, is suing the School District of Philadelphia, claiming he has received neither adequate instruction in the English language nor counseling services in his native tongue.

The boy, identified only as Y.S., has done poorly in school since he immigrated to this country in 1982, said his lawyer, Leonard Rieser.

"He may be mentally retarded. He may not," Mr. Rieser said. But the classification, he charged, "is based on information that's meaningless"--an intelligence test administered in English by a nonprofessional translator.

District officials also used a 6-year-old as an interpreter when they won the consent of the boy's non-English-speaking parents to place him in a special class, Mr. Reiser said. "The school system is failing to overcome language barriers at every step--counseling, special-education testing, regular testing," he said.

The federal class action, filed on behalf of all Asian students and parents in the district who have limited proficiency in English, seeks to guarantee them services in their native language and to require school officials to make systematic attempts to meet individuals' needs.

About 5,000 Asians are now enrolled in the schools, Mr. Rieser said.

A spokesman for the Philadelphia school district said it would be inappropriate to comment on the suit at this stage of the litigation.

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