‘Why don’t you learn English?’: Lawsuit blasts NYC translation services for special education families

One parent was told to bring a teenage nephew to translate her daughter’s special education meeting. Another mother struggled to decipher a phone call explaining that her daughter had a seizure and was taken to the hospital. A third parent, who requested an interpreter for a meeting, was asked, “Why don’t you learn English?”

A sweeping federal civil rights lawsuit filed this week on behalf of four families says these experiences are common, and the New York City Department of Education routinely withholds translation services to families who don’t speak English.

The complaint, filed by Legal Services NYC, describes a “pattern and practice” of failing to provide interpretation, including for communication about special education services, lead contamination in schools, bullying, and even serious medical conditions.

“The DOE repeatedly denied [limited English proficient] parents critical information about their children’s health, well-being, and education because of the language they speak,” said Amy Leipziger, a Legal Services NYC attorney.

“It really is denying parents the opportunity to get services for their children,” she added.

Out of the city’s 228,000 students with disabilities, roughly 76,000 speak another language at home, officials said. Their parents are legally entitled to translation so they can fully participate in their child’s education, including translations of key special education documents that spell out what services a student needs, how they are progressing, and what their goals are. The meetings where those individualized education programs (known as IEPs) are created must also include translators so parents can participate.

But the burden often falls on parents and schools to make sure translators are on hand, a patchwork system that often leaves parents in the dark. This year, 11,000 parents have requested a translator for an IEP meeting, officials said.

The Legal Services lawsuit describes four parents’ experiences in detail, all of whom have children in District 75 — which serves students with the most complicated disabilities, including autism, emotional disorders, and severe medical issues.

In many cases, parents only receive invitations to IEP meetings in English, key documents such as psychologist evaluations are not translated in advance, and the meetings are often conducted without trained interpreters, leaving school personnel to recruit staff members whose language skills or knowledge of special education can be shaky, according to the complaint.

When an IEP is finally created, translations of the documents can take months if they’re provided at all, the lawsuit said. Some schools told parents they couldn’t provide trained interpreters because they had exhausted their translation budgets, the lawsuit claims.

Education department officials declined to comment on specific families, but pointed to recent efforts to improve and expand services, including a pilot program designed to beef up translations of special education learning plans and a program that provides salary increases for bilingual special education teachers in some 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,” education department spokeswoman Danielle Filson said in a statement

Hui Qin Liu, whose eight-year-old daughter has autism and is part of the lawsuit, said that without good translation services, the process of advocating for her daughter has become an exhausting ordeal.

Liu  — who lives in Flushing and speaks Mandarin — has struggled to understand why her requests for feeding therapy went unheeded at her Queens school and physical therapy services were reduced, and even why her daughter has come home with bruises and bite marks. Since her daughter is nonverbal, communicating with school officials is one of the only ways Liu can understand her daughter’s experience there. And even when translators are provided, the quality can vary widely.
“The [education department provided] interpreter over the phone is not familiar with the school system,” she said through an interpreter. “I’m feeling so bad — hopeless.”

Marcela Hernandez has also struggled to communicate with school officials, routinely receiving communications from her daughter’s school in English, even though she filled out paperwork that says she primarily speaks Spanish.

Information about flu shots and half-days came in English. So did the notice informing Hernandez about the meeting to discuss her daughter’s special education services, which wasn’t delivered until after the meeting was set to begin, according to the lawsuit. The school held the meeting without her.

Eventually, with help from an advocate, school officials agreed to conduct a new meeting (though the translated notice included the wrong date). When the IEP meeting finally happened, the school asked a paraprofessional staff member who is fluent in Italian — not Spanish — to translate. The staff member mostly translated Hernandez’s comments, leaving her out of the loop on what others were saying. Finally, school staff attempted to “expedite” the meeting to the paraprofessional “could return to her job duties,” according to the lawsuit.

After that meeting, it took six months for Hernandez to receive a partially translated copy of her daughter’s IEP. The section listing her daughter’s goals remained in English.

“Because I speak Spanish, I don’t get the help I need to help my daughter,” Hernandez told Chalkbeat through an an interpreter. “They think that because I only speak Spanish I don’t understand the laws and the rights my daughter has.”

The education department has previously come under fire for failing to provide interpretation services to parents who don’t speak English, prompting a civil rights complaint in 2012. That case is still open and U.S. education department officials have not offered a timeline for completing it.

This week’s lawsuit calls on the education department to provide universal and free interpretation services, including special education documents; expand training for school staff on parent rights; create a system for tracking complaints when services aren’t provided; and award unspecified monetary damages.

City education department officials launched a pilot program this school year to centrally translate special education learning plans in some cases, relieving individual schools of the responsibility. So far, that program includes just three districts (including District 75); advocates have said the pilot doesn’t go far enough to require translations of all documents in all cases.

Paola Jordan, who co-directs Sinergia, an organization that helps Spanish-speaking families navigate special education services, said she believes the education department is taking steps in the right direction, but worries whether changes are trickling down to schools.

“It’s a really comprehensive problem,” she said, “and I hope with this lawsuit it brings attention and accountability.”