Failure to Translate

Jun 11, 2019 by

The Department of Education would often rather get over on parents than get through to them.

That is how to appears to some parents of special education students whose legal rights have been lost in translation. Or rather not been translated at all. For  that stated reason, Legal Services NYC has filed a federal lawsuit on their behalf..

The complaint alleges that the DOE has demonstrated a “pattern and practice” of failing to meet its legal obligation to provide translation services in certain situations when the students’ home language is other than English.

They claim that vital documents, such as the Individualized Education Program, which identifies the child’s needs, goals and progress, have not always been rendered into the language comprehensible to the parents, as required.

It is also claimed that other communications have also not been conveyed, such as messages related to bullying, lead contamination, flu shot availability, altered  school schedules and even critical notifications like an episode of  seizures.
It is averred that the lack of communication in a language in which parents are fluent may have resulted in diminished or denied services, such as physical therapy. It sounds conceivable that this could take place. Not out of malicious intent but out of failure to communicate.

Approximately one-third of the 228,000 special education students in our city’s public schools come from homes where English is not sufficiently mastered.  Even if the percentage of non-delivered translation services is not high,  for those affected it has the effect of punishment.
When there are no translators provided, schools may scramble among their staffs for someone reasonably fluent in the home language of the child.  However, unless there are vetted and credentialed translators, there may be mistakes made that could be the basis of inappropriate education decisions.

The DOE says that there budget for translators has been exhausted. Such an excuse is neither credible nor acceptable. No doubt they are not deliberately short-changing these non-English-speaking parents, but their unresponsiveness seems to have forced these parents to take the route of litigation. 

That should not be necessary. And is an irksome mystery that it is.

The DOE has a variety of strategies for coping with the glare of publicity. In the case of this Chalkbeat story, it issued a faint  conditional”mea culpa” and a lame partially exculpatory self-defense. And also a passionately-worded renewal of commitment to launch a new “pilot project” to compensate for the current lack of translators.
This “pilot project”, reflecting administrative penance, would shift the task of translations away from individual schools to a central authority. So far only  three districts are involved.
This present case is not the first time that the DOE has been accused of withholding interpretation help from parents who don’t speak English. According to Chalkbeat, there is a 7-year case against them with the US Department of Education.  That case is still open, so it is “active”, though apparently only in a technical sense.  Betsy DeVos’s DOE admits to having no time-frame for its resolution.
The new lawsuit must proceed at something better than a snail’s pace. Justice is always time-sensitive.

Ron Isaac

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