News Column

Feds Open New Civil Rights Probe of Wake County Schools

July 5, 2012

T. Keung Hui

Two legal advocacy groups announced Thursday that the U.S. Department of Education is launching a civil rights investigation into allegations that the Wake County school system is discriminating against some Latino students by not sending their parents important notices in Spanish.

In a June 27 notification letter, Olabisi L. Okubadejo, a team leader for the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, says they'll probe whether Wake is "failing to ensure" that Hispanic families "have meaningful access to information."

It was up to the discretion of investigators whether to pursue the complaint filed June 12 by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Children's Services, which is a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

"This is good news for all Latino students in Wake County schools whose parents have limited English proficiency," Peggy Nicholson, an attorney for Advocates for Children's Services, said in a written statement Thursday.

When the complaint was filed, Wake school officials said the state's largest school district was reviewing its practices to ensure it's meeting the needs of families.

"We are disappointed that the organizations have chosen to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, but our district is eager to work with OCR staff to resolve the complaint," according to the district's statement last month.

The complaint charges that Wake is violating Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by not providing adequate translation services to Hispanic students whose parents have limited English proficiency. Title VI prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race and national origin.

In particular, the two groups say that three Latino students were discriminated against because Wake only sent their parents notices in English about them facing long-term suspensions of more than 10 days from school. The complaint charges that since the parents only had limited English skills they were unable to fully intercede on their children's behalf.

The groups want federal officials to require Wake to make changes such as:

-- Provide documents related to suspensions and special education in Spanish to all parents with limited English skills whose primary language is Spanish.

-- Develop comprehensive websites in Spanish for school discipline and special education matters.

-- Ensure adequate availability of Spanish-speaking staff for the Office of Student Due Process and Special Education Services Department.

-- Provide students and parents with limited English skills with training, in Spanish, about their rights.

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.

Federal officials receive thousands of complaints each year but investigates relatively few of them. Wake is no stranger to federal civil rights investigations.

Earlier this week, the Office for Civil Rights announced that it had reached agreements with Wake and three other school districts accused of violating Title IX, the 40-year-old federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.

Under that agreement, which Wake school officials had announced last month, the district will survey by Dec. 1 all female high school students and those in eighth grade to gauge their interest in sports that are not now offered by the district. Based on the results, Wake will add athletic opportunities at the high schools for the 2013-14 school year.

The Office for Civil Rights is still investigating a complaint filed by the NAACP in September 2010 accusing Wake of engaging in racial discrimination in student assignment and student suspensions.

Source: (c) 2012 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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