Language Access in the School District of Philadelphia


Department of Justice Files Support Brief

The United States Department of Justice has filed a brief supporting the claims of non-English speaking parents of students with disabilities in the School District of Philadelphia that they are entitled to have all critical documents in the I.E.P process translated. The Justice Department’s Statement of Interest was filed in T.R. v. the School District of Philadelphia, a class action suit brought by lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. The suit alleges that the School District systematically fails to provide the interpretation and translation services needed to allow parents with limited English proficiency to meaningfully participate in their child’s education.

According to the complaint, as of the 2013-14 school year, there 19,000 families who had notified the District they wanted documents in their native language because they did not speak English as their primary language and the Complaint also stated that there were at least 1,887 students with IEPs whose home language was not English. The complaint pleaded, however, that the District adopted a systemic policy of failing to provide sufficient interpretation services and failed to timely or completely translate IEP process documents and regular education forms, in violation of federal law.

In its brief, the Justice Department agreed, focusing on two civil rights statutes raised by the plaintiffs: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA). Relying on considerable case law and agency guidance, the Justice Department argued that the failure of the District “to translate or provide adequate oral interpretation of regular education and IEP process documents impedes . . . students’ equal participation in the District’s instructional programs,” “compromises the special education and language services . . . [they] need to participate in school,” and thus “denies them equal educational opportunities on account of national origin,” in violation of Title VI and the EEOA.

The Statement of Interest came in response to a District motion to dismiss the case, which asserted that the District’s policies were in compliance with Title VI and the EEOA because they did not require translation of all critical documents. The District has until February 16, 2016 to reply to the Department of Justice brief.