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5 Rights Families of English Language Learners Should Know

If you ask any of my coworkers or the families I support what I’m passionate about, they’ll tell you it’s language access and the law. Before joining the EdNavigator team, I worked at the Orleans Public Defender’s Office as a client advocate/Spanish interpreter. Day in and day out, I was appalled by the lack of language access in the criminal justice system and disheartened that so many individuals had no idea what their legal, human, or constitutional rights were.

For the last two years, I’ve been equally outraged by the lack of language access I’ve seen in countless schools across multiple parishes. Currently, one in 10 students in the U.S. is new to the English language, a number that has been increasing steadily for the past decade. Yet many schools are still struggling to provide adequate accommodations or services to support them.

The rights of non-English speaking families are violated every day. Some of these violations include basic things like not translating report cards or notes home (often relating to behavior or academic progression) into a parent’s primary language. Others are more egregious.

At one school just last week, I walked into a meeting with a parent about her child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) for special education services. The interpreter was unavailable, so the vice principal was the individual interpreting. While I appreciated the effort, he did so poorly that the parent stopped him mid-meeting and said she didn’t feel comfortable with the information he was providing or the translations and asked that I finish the meeting as the interpreter.

If I had not been there, the parent would have received inaccurate information through an unqualified interpreter. In the end, she had to wait three weeks for the parish to find an interpreter—even though more than a quarter of all students in the parish are English language learners.

For families, the consequences are real. At another school, a family who was not provided with adequate language support did not fully understand their rights in the special education process. School staff curtailed their son’s evaluation for special education services and he ended up being retained in his grade and continued to struggle. When we started working with his family, we walked mom through the process and helped her push the school for a complete evaluation. Sure enough, the student was identified as having an exceptionality. He is now getting extra support and assistance in class as well as speech therapy.

Advocating for your child can often be very intimidating and difficult. When you throw in the language barrier that exists in many schools, it can feel almost impossible. I have heard time and time again that many parents we work with are worried that they are asking for too many “extra” things. I have realized that this may have something to do with the fact that many parents, especially immigrant parents, are unaware of the rights their children have or the rights that they have as parents.

Here are five fundamental rights that you and your child have when navigating the school system:

  1. All children and young adults, regardless of immigration status, have the right to a free and adequate public education in the United States. In Lau v. Nichols, the Supreme Court ruled that language-minority students must be ensured access to the same curriculum provided to their English-speaking peers in all public schools. It mandates that all limited English proficiency students should be provided with special language assistance.
  2. Public schools must provide interpretation or translation services for parents. The individuals providing these services must be qualified or certified and schools are NOT allowed to ask friends, family members, or untrained staff members to translate for parents.
  3. Public schools are required to provide parents with translated documents that relate to their child’s education. Some of these documents include: report cards, student discipline files, anything relating to special education, parent handbooks, and more. Click here for more information.
  4. A school district may never ask for proof of your or your child’s citizenship. School personnel are allowed to request information that proves you live within district lines, like phone bills, lease agreements, or water bills. They are also allowed to ask for paperwork that confirms your child’s date of birth. However, they are not allowed to ask for proof of immigration status. A school district may not bar your child from enrolling in the school if you choose to not provide them with your child’s social security number.
  5. Parents have the right to request a special education evaluation at any time. Parents have often come to me and said, “My child isn’t progressing and I think something is off or wrong. They keep saying it’s because my child doesn’t speak English well but I think it’s more than that.” Many schools push back on requests to begin the special education evaluation process, and they frequently claim that the law requires certain interventions to take place first. This is false. Interventions are NOT allowed to delay the IEP process if a parent has initiated it. A parent can initiate the process at any time and all public schools must comply. Along the way, schools must also ensure that all updates and documents relating to the IEP are translated for the parent, and arrange for qualified interpreters to be present at all IEP meetings.