04/12/2011

SPLC Demands End to Discrimination in North Carolina School District

At Northern High School in Durham, N.C., a teacher pushed a Latino student against the wall and told the student to "go back to your own country."

At the same high school, a teacher used a slur against Latino students. 

And at a Durham middle school, a substitute science teacher had all of the students with Spanish surnames stand up. He then captured video of the standing Latino students with his mobile phone.

These incidents are among the reasons the Southern Poverty Law Center is demanding that Durham Public Schools stop discriminating against Latino students. The SPLC sent a letter to the district's superintendent today on behalf of more than 6,000 students with limited English proficiency (LEP) and their families. The letter describes pervasive discrimination throughout the district.

If the school district fails to comply with federal law, we will file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

Durham, of course, is not the only school district with this problem. It's happening in many districts throughout the country.

The violations at Northern High School include teachers routinely engaging in ethnic name-calling of students without any repercussions. It's also at this high school where a teacher had a bilingual student serve as a translator for a student, only to later reprimand the two students for talking. The teacher took the students into a hallway where they were told to "go back to where you came from."

Language services are another concern. The school district has three Spanish language interpreters for more than 5,300 students whose primary language is Spanish. Under federal law, the school must provide these students and their families with access to interpreters and important school documents in a language they can understand.

But it's not happening in this school district.

Parents trying to take an active role in their child's education may call the school only to reach staff members unable to speak to them. Other times, a school may have a bilingual staff member – sometimes a custodian or other member of the support staff – serve as an interpreter. These parents can only hope there's no miscommunication.

Getting information as simple as a child's grades is an ordeal for these families.

They don't regularly receive translated report cards. They often don't receive translated teacher notes or notices of school activities. Some don't even receive adequately translated notices about suspension or expulsion.

And when there's an emergency at these schools, these families are in the dark. Last month, a Durham school was evacuated after gas pipes broke. Spanish-speaking parents were unable to get information from the school. When a building near a Durham middle school received a bomb threat, these parents were left to wonder about their children's safety.

The district's defenders will offer a number of excuses for these failures. They may even say that requiring translators, regardless of the student's immigration status, is too much of a burden for the district, that it should ignore this law.

But if we ignore the law, there will be an entire generation of LEP students at risk. Many will underachieve. Many will drop out. Many will be pushed out. Before we shirk our responsibilities, we should realize our schools have the power to shape the future. We'd be wise to ensure it's a bright one.

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