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Philly Schools Accused of Denying Translation Services to Parents of Special-Needs Children

Many parents of non-English-speaking children don't know they are entitled to translation services. Credit: Aryo T. Handono/USAID
Many parents of non-English-speaking children don't know they are entitled to translation services. Credit: Aryo T. Handono/USAID
August 26, 2015

PHILADELPHIA - A federal class-action lawsuit claims that thousands of non-English-speaking parents in Philadelphia are being denied the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the special-education process.

Parental involvement is critical to meeting the needs of children with learning disabilities, said Maura McInerney, senior attorney at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, adding that failing to provide documents such as special-ed evaluations or Individualized Education Programs in a language the parents can understand negatively affects their child's educational outcome.

"It puts them at a distinct disadvantage," she said, "and constitutes a violation of special-education law, which is very clear on these mandates, as well as civil rights laws."

The lawsuit, filed jointly with the Public Interest Law Center, asked the court to order the School District of Philadelphia to provide complete translations of documents and oral interpretation when needed, and to notify parents that they are entitled to those services.

According to McInerney, in the 2013-14 school year there were more than 26,000 families in the district whose primary language was not English, and 1,500 English-language learners receiving special education.

"However, only 487 special-education documents of any type were orally interpreted," she said, "and fewer were documents that were translated."

Without translations, McInerney said, parents can't read the documents that would tell them their child has a learning problem. She said the Education Law Center hears similar complaints from non-English-speaking parents throughout the state.

"Many of them are unaware of their right to receive translation and interpretation," she said, "and so therefore are not even fully apprised of their right to meaningful participation."

At two administrative law hearings, a hearing officer found the district had violated the rights of students and parents, but said he lacked authority to order systemic change.

Andrea Sears/Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - PA