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Schools Must Provide Interpreters for Deaf Parents, U.S. JudgeRules

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A school district must supply a sign-language interpreter for deaf parents who want to attend school conferences on their children's academic progress, a federal judge has ruled.

"School-sponsored activities that are designed for parental involvement and are focused on the student's academic or disciplinary progress" must be made accessible to the hearing-impaired, wrote Judge Gerard Goettel of the U.S. District Court in White Plains, N.Y.

Marc P. Charmatz, a lawyer for the National Association for the4Deaf Legal Defense Fund, said the suit, brought by his group, was the first of its kind in federal court. The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has ruled in favor of deaf parents in similar cases, he said.

In this case, the deaf parents of two hearing children in the Ramapo (N.Y.) Central School District charged that the district discriminated against them by not providing interpreters at school-sponsored parent-teacher conferences about their children.

The parents, Karen and Kenneth Rothschild, sought relief under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids organizations that receive federal funds to discriminate against the handicapped.

The Rothschilds alleged that the district denied their repeated requests for an interpreter at school events to which they were invited or were required to attend.

As a result, the parents said they did not attend events or else hired their own interpreter. The Rothschilds estimate they have spent $2,000 on such services since their children were enrolled in the district in the early 1980's.

The parents said that in refusing to provide an interpreter, the school denied them equal access to services offered by the school to all parents, and thus violated federal law.

The school district countered that it had accommodated the parents by providing special seating for them and their interpreter. They also argued that the federal law does not apply to the deaf parents of nonhandicapped children.

Judge Goettel, in his decision late last month, said the law does indeed require the district to provide an in4terpreter to hearing-impaired parents. But this obligation, he wrote, "is limited to school-initiated conferences incident to the academic and/or disciplinary aspects of their child's education."

"To the extent that the [Rothschilds] wish to voluntarily participate in any of the plethora of extracurricular activities that their children may be involved in, we think they, like other parents, must do so at their own expense," the judge wrote.

Bill V. Kakoullis, a lawyer for the district, said officials have not yet decided if they will appeal the verdict.--ef

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