Two advocacy groups filed a federal civil rights complaint today accusing the Wake County, N.C., 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 right as English-speaking students," Caren Short, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a written statement. "This is about ensuring every student in the district has the right to succeed."
The two groups had sent a notice to Wake on May 8 warning that they might take action unless the district made changes.
Peggy Nicholson, a staff attorney for Advocates for Children's Services, a project of Legal Aid of N.C., said today 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.
Wake school officials responded today by pointing back to the statement the district had issued in May to the warning letter from the two groups. The statement pointed to various efforts Wake has undertaken to reach out to Spanish-speaking families. In one example, Wake cited how it sends Spanish-language versions of most communications, including student handbooks, information about a student's due process and the availability of special education.
"We have been proactively engaging all students and families in the Wake County Public School System, including those in the Latino community," said Wake Superintendent Tony Tata in the May response. "As a district, WCPSS has developed relationships with key community groups, leaders and media partners to support the needs of our Spanish-speaking families."
But Nicholson, whose group represents three Hispanic students who are facing 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.
Citing past federal guidance, the groups contend that Wake should be providing written translation services because Hispanic 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.
The groups contend that Wake's actions violate Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin.
That section has also been cited against another Triangle school system. Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal complaint against the Durham school system alleging discrimination against Latino students and their families. The national civil rights organization cited several concerns, including an insufficient number of translators compared to the number of Latino students, ineffective communication with parents who don't speak English, and hostile school environments.
In response, the U.S. Department of Education and Durham schools 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.
Wake is already being probed over allegations of violating Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act. Federal investigators are looking into a complaint filed by the NAACP in 2010 over Wake's elimination of its policy of busing for socioeconomic diversity and whether the district is disproportionately suspending minority students from school.
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