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Legal Services NYC Has Filed a Lawsuit Against the Department of Education on Behalf of Parents of Children with Special Needs

Legal Services NYC filed a complaint against the New York City Department of Education in the beginning of June that blasts the DOE for a “pattern and practice” of failing to provide translated materials to parents about special education services, lead contamination in schools, bullying, and even serious medical conditions. Parents have revealed that schools have made it virtually impossible for them to understand how their children with special needs will be given the programming and services they are entitled to. Of the city’s 228,000 students with disabilities, about 76,000 speak another language at home. All parents involved in the lawsuit have kids in District 75, which serves students with disabilities such as autism, emotional disorders, and severe medical issues. Alex Zimmerman reported on this issue for Chalkbeat.

The DOE had implemented a pilot program offering Individualized Education Plan (IEP) translation services to parents of students with disabilities in certain districts this year. The program intended to take the burden of translation off of school districts while keeping parents more involved and knowledgeable about their kids’ education progress. The success of the program and other service expansions has not been measured yet.

Legal Services NYC is focused on the experiences of several parents across the city who say the DOE has blocked them from understand aspects of their kids’ education because of the language they speak. One parent was told to bring in her teenage nephew as a translator for her daughter’s special education meeting. Another mother could not decipher a telephone call, relayed only in English, explaining that her daughter had a seizure and had been taken to the hospital. A third parent who requested an interpreter for a meeting was told, “Why don’t you just learn English?”

The burden of making sure translators are present at meetings often falls on parents, creating a patchwork system that leaves them in the dark. Hui Qin Liu, whose 8-year-old daughter has autism and is part of the Legal Services NYC lawsuit, says that without adequate translation services, advocating for her daughter has become exhausting. Since her daughter is nonverbal, communicating with school officials is the only way Liu can understand her daughter’s experience.

“The [education department provided] interpreter over the phone is not familiar with the school system,” she said through an interpreter, according to Chalkbeat. “I’m feeling so bad–hopeless.”

For Marcela Hernandez, who primarily speaks Spanish, learning about her son’s education has also been a challenge. Information about flu shots, meetings, and more arrives in English. One notice about an important meeting wasn’t sent until after the meeting was supposed to take place. The school held the meeting without Hernandez.

After a long process–wherein the school brought in a paraprofessional who was fluent in Italian, not Spanish–Hernandez received a partially translated copy of her daughter’s IEP. The section listing her daughter’s goals was written in English.

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

The DOE has faced criticism before for failing to provide interpretation services to parents who don’t speak English, which prompted a civil rights complaint in 2012. The suit launched in the beginning of June calls on the Department to provide universal and free translation services, including for special education documents; expand training on parent rights for school staff; and create a system for tracking complaints when services aren’t provided.

About the Author

Jacqueline Neber is an assistant editor and a graduate of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. When she's not focused on writing special needs and education features, you can find her petting someone else's dog.

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