A federal complaint filed yesterday argues that Columbus and five other central Ohio school districts are among those that discriminate against special-education students whose parents speak Spanish by failing to provide translation and interpreters.
Disability Rights Ohio, a federally designated advocate for people with disabilities in Ohio, and Toledo-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality say that the following districts have shut families out of the special-education process and should be forced to make changes immediately: Columbus, Dublin, Groveport Madison, South-Western, Toledo, Westerville and Whitehall.
Federal law requires public-school districts to include parents, using a language they understand, in special-education conferences and decisions about services their children receive. The absence of translators can mean parents who don’t speak English might not know what help their children need and can’t advocate for them.
The complaint was filed with the Department of Justice on behalf of 21 families. The families argue they’re being discriminated against on the basis of national origin and want the Justice Department to require the districts to identify which families need language assistance and train school staff on their obligations to provide services.
The state Education Department is named because, the complaint says, it doesn’t offer Spanish-language assistance for families who want to file a special-education complaint against their schools.
“What many school districts do pretty well is translate general documents that go out on a regular basis. For these families, the problem is they’re not getting documents that are critical to their children’s education translated. They’re more difficult to do because they’re individualized documents, they’re not a form letter,” said Kristin Hildebrant, senior attorney at Disability Rights Ohio.
“They can’t get the Department of Education to help them with their concerns because they can’t communicate with them.”
Many of the central Ohio districts named in the complaint said they hadn’t seen it and couldn’t comment. But several also said their districts provide translation and interpreting services regularly.
“When we’re aware that these services are needed, they are provided,” said Westerville spokesman Greg Viebranz. The district also has two employees who work directly with families who don’t speak English as a native language, including one who speaks Spanish.
Whitehall’s superintendent, Brian Hamler, said the district offers interpreters whenever a parent asks for one or when a teacher suggests it would be helpful. South-Western’s spokeswoman, Sandy Nekoloff, said the complaint was the first the district had heard of problems. She said South-Western provides interpreters or bilingual assistants at all special-education conferences.
The families’ names are masked in the complaint, although it details the parents’ struggles in each district. Most often, the families say that materials such as special-education meeting notices, students’ progress reports and individualized education plans are provided only in English, which they don’t understand. In most of the districts, parents say no interpreter is provided for special-education meetings.
At Groveport Madison, a parent in the complaint says interpreters are provided during the important meetings, but that the interpreters don’t interpret well, so the parent is left confused or with a poor understanding of what has happened.
In Toledo’s case, the complaint says the district fails to routinely send out letters in Spanish or offer Spanish-language assistance for students without disabilities as well, said Mark Heller, senior attorney at ABLE.
“In Toledo, we had gone to the school district starting in 2011 ... and had a series of meetings with the superintendent on this issue. The parents here wanted to try to resolve this by dealing directly with the school system, but nothing has improved even though we’ve received assurance that this would change.”