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Lawsuit demands DOE increase language services for parents

Advocates filed a federal complaint today against the city Department of Education that they said represents years of troubling reports from parents who don’t speak English.

Hundreds of those parents have come to the advocacy groups with concerns that the department doesn’t provide sufficient language services for navigating special education. And with extensive special education reforms in progress, the need for language services is more pressing than ever, said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children.

AFC, which represents low-income students and students with disabilities, joined with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest to file the complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights on behalf of 19 city families. The complaint charges the city with violating federal, state, and city laws by failing to provide translation services for the parents of children with special needs.

The complaint profiles one of the parents in detail. Nyuk Siem Looi, who speaks only Cantonese, has two sons who are autistic and cannot speak. According to the complaint, Looi has been told to bring her own interpreter to meetings and pressured to sign documents about her sons’ educational programs that she could not understand.

Parents named in the complaint were joined by dozens of others at a rally on the steps of City Hall today after the complaint was filed, many holding umbrellas to relieve themselves from more than 90-degree heat.

Parents say they need more of a voice in their children’s education, especially considering the complex nature of the Individualized Education Plans that all students with disabilities receive. IEPs describe the student’s educational needs and how the school should address them.

The drafting of each student’s IEP is supposed to be a collaborative process between the school and parents. But Sweet said parents who can’t speak English often are not provided with translators during the meetings where the IEP is formulated, so they can’t contribute crucial information about their children.

This fall’s reforms will increase the number of students mainstreamed into general education classrooms. Some parents — including native English speakers — feel they don’t have enough information and are worried that the department is pushing schools to change IEPs to include less time in special education classrooms, even if the move is not in the child’s best interest.

The Department of Education has repeatedly said this is not the case. But at a City Council meeting last week, Laura Rodriguez, the outgoing deputy chancellor of special education, acknowledged that communication about the reforms had not been ideal.

Jessica Daye, NYLPI’s disability advocate, said the group had several meetings with department officials about its concerns in recent years. Last year, the group realized the department would not act without an impetus, and began to work on the official complaint, she said.

She said the department has the resources to serve its non-English-speaking parents but it needs a system to put those resources to good use.

“They have a lot of plans on paper,” she said. “What’s lacking is the actual implementation, on the ground.”

A spokeswoman said the Department of Education had not received the complaint by this afternoon. But she said the department has complied with the law around supplying translation services at meetings about special education and would continue to do so.

“We provide translation and interpretation services, including translation of documents containing critical information regarding the special education process,” reads the department’s Language Access plan. “The DOE’s policy is that upon parental request the student’s individual education plan will be translated. We also provide interpreters at special education meetings.”

The complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights today is below.