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TPS hit over equal access; Action claims 7 districts don't provide English help

The following article, written by Nolan Rosenkrans, appeared Friday, January 30, 2015 in The Toledo Blade. Read below, or view the contents on The Blade's website.

Toledo Public Schools is among seven districts named in a federal complaint filed by parents and children with limited English skills who claim the school systems haven't provided adequate interpreters and often send home information only in English.

The complaint was filed Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division on behalf of the families by Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. and Disability Rights Ohio. Along with TPS, the Ohio Department of Education is named, as are Columbus City Schools, Dublin City Schools, Groveport-Madison Local Schools, Southwestern City Schools, Westerville City Schools, and Whitehall City Schools.

The families and organizations claim that the educational entities have violated several federal laws by discriminating against the families by denying them equal access to education because the children or families have limited to no English skills, and the school systems provide no aid.

ABLE Managing Attorney Robert Cole said the complaint's genesis is Toledo, where Hispanic families and organizations have long said the school system hasn't provided adequate services for families with limited English. Meetings between the district and groups such as Adelante have not produced results, prompting the complaint, he said.

"The problems were not addressed," he said. "In fact, the problems have gotten worse."

Disability Rights Ohio contacted ABLE and said they were working on similar issues in other school districts, prompting the two organizations to combine forces.

At times, children are being asked to translate for their parents, Mr. Cole said, citing an example of a 10-year-old who was suspended. The suspension notice was in English, forcing the child to translate the notice for his mother, Mr. Cole said. Translators aren't provided for parent-teacher conferences, or aren't available when a parent calls their child's school, the complaint states.

A family claims their child's Individualized Education Plan was missing key information because TPS did not obtain a translated evaluation that was done in Puerto Rico. Parents have an active role in an IEPs creation, and when translators or interpreters aren't made available, Mr. Cole said, parents can't be fully involved.

Similar complaints are filed against all the school districts, and ODE is named because it is supposed to have oversight of the districts to ensure they comply with federal law, according to the filing.

Bob Vasquez, president of the Toledo Board of Education, said that he and district administrators had been involved in conversations with Adelante and other Hispanic organizations for several years about the issues raised in the complaint. Similar concerns were raised by the Toledo Hispanic Affairs Commission when Mr. Vasquez was a member before he joined the school board, he said.

He expressed surprise at the complaint, and said he would bring the matter up with TPS administrators.

"I was told it was being addressed," Mr. Vasquez said.

A Department of Justice spokesman said Thursday she had no immediate information about the complaint. An Ohio Education department spokesman said the agency provides documents in multiple languages and has translators available, and believes Ohio school districts should as well.

"We want to make sure that those services are accessible to all parents," spokesman John Charlton said.

Mr. Cole said he didn't believe TPS intentionally discriminated against the families, but that the district had not made the commitment to create the necessary systemic changes. The complaint asks that the Justice Department force the districts to comply with federal law, and asks for federal oversight.