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 services.
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 said.
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.”