08/22/2012

SPLC fights discrimination in Jefferson Parish, La., public schools

At Maggiore Elementary School in Jefferson Parish, La., there were no interpreters for students with Spanish-speaking parents.

This meant that 7-year-old M.V. had to interpret for his mother at a parent-teacher conference. But he had a difficult time interpreting the teacher’s messages and resorted to telling his mother that the “teacher said he was doing fine.”

N.H., the mother of three students in Jefferson Parish schools, has given up on attending parent-teacher conferences or school open houses because the lack of interpreters for Spanish-speakers has made it difficult for her to receive or convey any meaningful information.

In a federal complaint filed today, the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that the Jefferson Parish Public School System has violated federal law and the civil rights of Latino students by failing to provide adequate translation and interpretation services for Spanish-speaking parents with limited English proficiency (LEP).

The SPLC complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of 16 Latino students and their families. It describes how LEP parents of Latino students are unable to read and understand important school notices written in English.

It also describes how these parents are unable to communicate effectively with school staffers because of the lack of interpretation services. And it outlines how the school system has created a hostile environment for Latino students by allowing employees to harass students about their citizenship status.

“Jefferson Parish public schools must end these discriminatory practices and recognize that these students have the same rights as English-speaking families,” said Jennifer Coco, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana office. “This is about ensuring every student in the district has an opportunity to succeed and that all parents have a meaningful opportunity to participate in their child’s education.”

According to the complaint, the school system fails to provide LEP parents with information they can understand regarding school discipline and the provision of special education services, as well as important notices about their eligibility for LEP services, major school events, parent-teacher conferences and school closures.

L.M., a recent graduate of West Jefferson High School, was harassed for proof of her Social Security number by school staffers before her May 2012 graduation and was informed that she would not be able to graduate without it. Other West Jefferson seniors were subjected to a similar line of questioning.

One student, identified in the complaint as C.K., is a rising sophomore now attending Cox High School who sought a transfer from West Jefferson High School because of widespread hostility. A teacher called him a “wetback” during class, in the presence of other students, but school officials failed to take any action against the teacher or remove C.K. from the teacher’s classroom.

“The current policies and practices in Jefferson Parish schools have created a discriminatory and intolerant learning environment that is depriving Latino students of a quality education,” said Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director at the SPLC.

Latino students comprise 17 percent of the district’s student population, and LEP students are 8 percent of the population. Federally funded school districts are required by various laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to provide LEP parents with important information in a language they can understand. This also requires that schools not condition enrollment or graduation from a public school on a students’ citizenship or immigration status.