Flushing family part of federal suit against city over translation services for special ed student parents

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A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed against the city’s Department of Education on behalf of four families — including one from Queens — for denying interpretation and translation services to Limited English Proficient parents who don’t speak English.

Legal Services NYC filed the suit in the Eastern District of New York for the Spanish- and Chinese-speaking plaintiffs who allege school officials routinely denied them oral interpretation and written translations when communicating vital information about their children’s well-being and academic progress, including during emergency situations and regular academic evaluation meetings related to their children’s disabilities.

“As a parent, I find it unconscionable that information about my child could be denied or withheld because of the language I speak,” Legal Services NYC Senior Staff Attorney Amy Leipziger said. “In this case, the DOE repeatedly denied LEP parents critical information about their children’s health, well-being, and education by refusing to provide interpreters and translation services, causing the parent unnecessary fear and anxiety by resulting in a denial of services and support for their children. The DOE has a clear legal obligation to give LEP parents meaningful access to their children’s education, yet time and again, they refused to do so.”

One parent — Flushing resident Hui Qin Liu, the mother of an 8-year-old daughter with autism who attends P.S. 76 — received a call in English from her daughter’s bus driver telling her that her daughter had a seizure and was being taken to the emergency room.

Liu, a native Mandarin speaker, was able to decipher the name of the hospital but had no other information about he daughter’s well-being.

On another occasion, Liu’s daughter came home with bite marks on her body. After making a written request for an explanation from the school, she received a phone call, in English, but understood none of it. Another parent asked the school for a Spanish interpreter in advance of a school meeting but was asked, “Why don’t you learn English?” by a staff member in response.

“Every parent deserves information, of any kind, regarding their child’s education communicated to them in the language they speak,” state Senator John Liu said. “In these cases, parents were not only denied a critical role in their child’s education plans, they were not formally alerted when their child’s physical safety was in harm’s way. The DOE caused these families trauma. Moreover, they are in violation of the basic law that every child is entitled to a high-quality public school education.”

The lawsuit alleges the DOE violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits institutions receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of national origin, as well as NYC Human Rights Law and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. The lawsuit also points out that DOE is in violation of its own Language Access Plan and Chancellor Regulations designed to ensure that the DOE provides LEP parents with translated documents and interpreters so they participate in and have access to programs and services critical to their child’s education.

“I was horrified to learn that the NYC DOE has repeatedly denied interpretation and translation services to parents in this city,” Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz said. “The DOE has marginalized perhaps the most vulnerable members of our school community, LEP parents and students with disabilities who depend and trust the DOE to provide quality educational services and support to their children. New York City holds itself to be a beacon on inclusion and opportunity. The idea that the NYC DOE refused language access to parents and told them to ‘learn English’ is appalling.”

The parents are seeking compensatory damages, penalties and restorative justice relief including that DOE notify LEP parents of their right to obtain free interpretation to communicate with school personnel and free translation of their children’s Individualized Education program.

“Any school employee who tells limited-English parents of disabled children that translating documents would ‘take too long’ and that they should just ‘learn English’ is not only being disrespectful, lazy and discriminatory, they are also in violation of DOE’s own rules,” Councilman Peter Koo said. “This suit is necessary to ensure justice for these families and to make sure no one in our schools is cutting corners at the expense of our immigrant parents.”

QNS reached out to the DOE and is awaiting a response.

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