Important Victory for Parents with Limited English Proficiency and their Children with Disabilities, as Lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia Moves Forward

Philadelphia, Pa. –  A federal class action lawsuit challenging the failure a major school district to provide translation and interpretation services to limited English proficient parents of children with disabilities is moving forward.  This week a federal judge soundly rejected a request by the School District of Philadelphia to throw out any of the seven claims asserted against them in a case involving more than a thousand children with disabilities whose parents speak little or no English. The case will now proceed with fact discovery and class certification proceedings.

The lawsuit filed in 2015 by the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center-PA, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP alleges that parents and their children are illegally denied the opportunity to participate in the special education process and receive critical services because they don’t understand or speak English and are provided with documents in English that they don’t understand. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs’ claims of national origin discrimination.

Under federal disability law, children with disabilities are entitled to an educational planning process, including meetings and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), to ensure they receive a free and appropriate public education. The complaint alleges that the School District refuses to sufficiently interpret the meetings or translate the documents related to this process in a timely manner, preventing parents from meaningfully participating in making informed decisions regarding educational placements and services. The complaint further alleges that as of the 2013-14 school year, there were 1,500 students learning English who received special education services, and 1,887 students with IEPs who spoke a language other than English at home.

The School District sought to dismiss every count of the complaint, including claims brought under laws protecting children with disabilities and those protecting against discrimination based on national origin. The Court denied the motion in its entirety, holding that the plaintiffs had stated valid legal claims.

“This decision is a profoundly moving one for me,” said Anna Perng, an activist in the Asian American community who assists limited English proficient parents. “I grew up with a learning disability. My immigrant parents were not able to get me services and supports due to lack of interpretation and translation in the IEP process. Today, I run a monthly support group for immigrant parents to help them advocate for their children with disabilities. I applaud the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center and Drinker Biddle & Reath for fighting to ensure that all students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education. We are one step closer to realizing the promise of federal special education law: all means all.”

“This decision stands for a proposition enshrined in the civil rights laws of our country, that parents and children who do not speak English have the same rights to participate in our education system as those who do, ” said Michael Churchill, of Counsel at the Public Interest Law Center.

“This case is about the critical need for translation and interpretation services during the special education process,” said Chanda A. Miller, a Drinker Biddle attorney who argued the case before the Court in September. “We are pleased that the Court has ordered this case to go forward, so that one day all parents in the School District of Philadelphia, regardless of their English proficiency, may have the same opportunities to participate in their children’s special education plans.”

The U.S. Department of Education is closely following the case and previously issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in response to DOJ’s filing, clarifying that state educational agencies and school districts have “independent responsibilities to provide LEP parents of children with disabilities meaningful access through timely and complete translation and oral interpretation.”

“This is a potentially precedent-setting case that is being watched in other jurisdictions,” said Maura McInerney, Senior Attorney at Education Law Center-PA. “The Court’s ruling sends an important message that our disability and civil rights laws create enforceable protections and that all parents — including those with limited English proficiency — have an unequivocal right to meaningful participation in the special education process.  They cannot be discriminated against on the basis of language and national origin and their children have a right to equal educational opportunities.”

The lawsuit builds from two administrative special education hearings during which the hearing officer found that the District had violated the rights of the students and parents to meaningfully participate in their children’s education. However, the hearing officer stated that he lacked the authority to order systemic change to remedy the situation.

The complaint asks the Court to order the District to provide complete and timely translations of special education documents; to notify parents that they are entitled to such documents in their native language; to provide sufficient oral interpretation services for key encounters pertaining to special education services; and to provide bilingual evaluations for all students who need them.

Parents of children with disabilities who have not had educational documents translated for them should contact the Education Law Center at 215-346-6905 or the Public Interest Law Center at 215-627-7100.