Federal

Civil Rights Deal Signals Federal Push for Translation Services

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 03, 2011 5 min read

The Philadelphia school district has been beefing up language-translation services for parents to carry out a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, in what is seen as a signal that the federal government is planning to press harder on schools to make school-to-home communications more accessible to all parents with limited English skills.

Stemming from the Justice Department’s investigation last year into a series of attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, the Dec. 15 agreement technically applies only to that school, but some civil rights lawyers say its specificity about language access telegraphs its potentially wider application.

It’s “a promising sign of how clear the guidance [on language access] could be for many school districts,” said James Ferg-Cadima, the Washington regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The settlement preceded a Feb. 17 memo from the Justice Department that also shows how the Obama administration is placing a high priority on access to language services in that it requires all government agencies to establish a language-access working group. The memo stresses that every federal agency is obliged to carry out a 2000 executive order to “develop and implement a system by which limited-English-proficient (LEP) persons can meaningfully access the agency’s services.” It reminds heads of agencies that any federally-funded programs—and Mr. Ferg-Cadima notes that includes schools—must provide meaningful access to people with limited English skills.

Settlement’s Mandates

Translating for Parents With Limited English Skills

What’s Required of Districts

“Under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, school districts have an obligation to adequately notify limited-English-proficient parents of school activities that are brought to the attention of other parents. To be adequate, the notice may have to be provided as a written translation or an oral interpretation, depending on the facts of a given district’s LEP-parent population and the activity at issue in the notice.

“When the Department of Justice finds inadequate district communications with LEP parents, it seeks relief that the district must take to address the specific inadequacies.”

Examples of relief can include:

  • Establishing a process for determining the language needs of LEP parents.
  • Securing adequate interpreter and translation resources within the district and outside of it, when needed, to meet the language needs of LEP parents.
  • Ensuring district staff have access to these resources in a timely manner.
  • Developing district procedures for the timely and competent provision of translation and interpreter services, and training district staff regarding these procedures.
  • Providing notice to parents about the availability of translation and interpreter services and how to request them.
  • Requiring translations of documents containing essential information.
  • Prior to conducting an individualized education program meeting, notifying parents of the availability of interpreters and providing interpreters on request with reasonable notice; requiring that translators and interpreters have sufficient qualifications to perform their services adequately (including knowledge of the specialized vocabulary needed for special-education-related communications), and training them when they do not.
  • Prohibiting the use of students to provide translation or interpretation services except in the event of an emergency.
  • Creating an inventory of district-level and school-level translated documents on the district web site so that district staff can access them.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

The Philadelphia settlement requires the district to inform LEP parents at South Philadelphia High School by the start of the school year or no later than 10 days after their child is identified as an English-language learner that the district provides translation/interpretation services to parents free of charge. It requires the district to continue to provide interpretation services to students or their parents whenever an ELL faces the prospect of a suspension, expulsion, or disciplinary transfer. Any documents about an alleged or actual harassment incident or disciplinary action taken against an ELL student at South Philadelphia High School must be translated for parents. The Asian students who were victims in the widely publicized attacks at the school last year were English-language learners.

“It’s not cheap” to provide the level of translation and interpretation required by the settlement, said Cong Wang, the director of the school system’s translation and interpretation center, noting that the district is spending $5.57 million on such services this school year. In response to the Justice Department’s mandates, the 167,000-student school system now gives cards to parents across the district informing them in eight different languages that the district provides free translation and interpretation. It also gives a telephone number to call to receive such services for any of the 164 languages spoken by parents. The district has also distributed computer flash drives to principals containing documents for parents translated into eight languages. As was true before the incidents at South Philadelphia High School, the district continues to make available to schools 103 bilingual interpreters who speak 31 languages among them.

The Justice Department declined to comment on whether all school districts should adhere to the standards for translation and interpretation in the Philadelphia settlement, but told Education Week in a statement that school districts are obliged under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to notify limited-English-proficient parents of “school activities that are brought to the attention of other parents.”

OCR Reviews

Meanwhile, in the last year, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education has opened compliance reviews in five school districts that include an examination of whether communication with parents of ELLs is effective. Those districts are in Dearborn, Mich.; Hazelton, Pa.; Los Angeles; New London, Conn.; and Tulsa, Okla.

Some representatives of refugee-resettlement organizations or ELL advocacy groups said that many school districts are not even minimally meeting the requirements in federal law, saying that the expense of providing high-quality translation/interpretation services is daunting for some schools.

“It’s been a struggle for 30 years that I’m aware of,” said Lyn Morland, the director of Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services, an initiative of the Washington-based United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide technical assistance to schools that receive refugee students. Ms. Morland called the language-access requirements for schools in the Civil Rights Act “an unfunded mandate” and said they haven’t been consistently enforced.

“A lot of people are aware they need to provide Spanish translators. Because our work pertains to refugees, we’re dealing with every population other than Spanish speakers,” added Laura M. Gardner, an education technical assistance specialist who works with Ms. Morland. “A lot of school districts throw up their hands and say, ‘There are too many languages.’ ”

A ‘Toolkit’ for Schools

To help school districts understand their obligations under federal law, Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services published a “toolkit” on language access last week.

For years, federal education laws have said school districts must communicate with parents in their native languages “to the extent practicable.”

Some states or school districts have approved statutes or regulations that provide additional clarity. California’s education code says, for example, that when 15 percent or more of students in a public school speak a native language other than English, all notices sent to parents must be translated into that language.

The Chancellor of New York City schools put out a regulation in 2007, and updated it in 2009, spelling out the district’s and schools’ obligations for translation and interpretation. The 2009 document, for example, says that schools cannot use students to provide translation or interpretation.

The budget for the New York City district’s translation and interpretation unit is $4 million, according to Kleber J. Palma, who was hired to set up that unit in 2004 and serves as its director. When asked if New York City meets the federal standard to notify parents who don’t speak English of every school activity that is brought to the attention of other parents, Mr. Palma said, “when the mandate is to do everything you can with 150 languages, you have to be creative.”

District protocol is to translate documents into nine languages, which Mr. Palma says meets the needs of 95 percent of parents. A phone-in service makes interpretation available in other languages as well.

“Unfortunately, the line is always drawn in the sand where some languages are left out,” Mr. Palma said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as LEP Translation Plan Hints at Federal Push

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