The News & Observer
June 12, 2012
Schools Accused of Discriminating against Latino Students
T. Keung Hui
Two advocacy groups filed a federal civil rights complaint Tuesday
accusing the Wake County school system of discriminating against
Latino families with limited English skills by not sending them
important documents in Spanish.
The complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Advocates
for Children's Services charges that Wake is violating the civil
rights of Hispanic families by not providing them adequate translation
The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Education's Office
for Civil Rights to require North Carolina's largest school
system to make changes, such as providing documents about suspensions
and special education services in Spanish to parents with limited
proficiency in English.
"Wake County public schools must end this discrimination
and recognize that these students and their parents have the
same rights as English-speaking students," Caren Short,
a staff attorney for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law
Center, said in a written statement. "This is about ensuring
every student in the district has the right to succeed."
The Wake County school system issued a statement Tuesday saying
it was "disappointed" that the complaint was filed.
"The Wake County Public School System is committed to providing
support for all parents with limited English proficiency, regardless
of their primary language," according to the district's
statement. "WCPSS staff, from the central office to the
school level, are actively reviewing our practices to ensure
we are meeting families' needs at every opportunity."
The complaint is one of several filed in recent years by groups
who have alleged that school districts across the country are
violating Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act by not providing
adequate translation services. Title VI prohibits institutions
that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race
and national origin.
In November, the Durham school system settled with federal investigators
after a complaint was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Durham school officials agreed to a number of steps, including
strengthening the school district's anti-discrimination policy,
translating report cards, and improving communication with parents
who are not native English speakers.
In the Wake case, the two groups had sent a notice to the district
on May 8 warning that they might take action unless changes
were made. This led to meetings between the organizations and
the school system over the complaints of three Hispanic families
who say they didn't get needed documents in Spanish.
The school system said Tuesday that its administrators and attorney
are investigating the three cases to determine whether the district
can make changes to better serve the families. According to
the district's statement, the groups were "impressed"
with Wake's efforts to serve the families.
Peggy Nicholson, a staff attorney for Advocates for Children's
Services, a project of Legal Aid of N.C., said Tuesday that
the school system offered to provide translation of documents
when requested by families. But she said the groups making the
complaint considered that to be too much of a burden to place
on the families.
"We feel they should be providing automatic translation
services to families who are limited-English proficient,"
Nicholson, whose group represents three Hispanic students who
faced suspensions of more than 11 days from school, says her
clients didn't receive specific information in Spanish even
though Wake knew the parents had limited English skills. She
said the groups bringing the complaints have heard of other
Hispanic families having similar problems with Wake.
District is 15% Latino.
Citing past federal guidance, the groups contend that Wake should
be providing written translation services because Latino students
account for 15 percent of the district's 146,000 students. The
fast-growing Hispanic population has helped make Wake the 16th-largest
school system in the country.
"We're hoping that a complaint in Wake County will benefit
a large number of students," Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal
director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Tuesday.
"I hope it gives direction to other school systems that
may not be as large."