Federal civil rights investigators have been probing allegations that the Lawrence and Braintree school systems have failed to provide interpretation for non-English-speaking parents of special education students, making them the latest school systems in Massachusetts to have their services for immigrant families come under scrutiny.
Two complaints filed with the US Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights center on the language barriers non-English-speaking parents face when their children have disabilities and need to navigate the complicated legal world of special education and all its bureaucratic red tape.
In many instances, the complaints contend the school systems were not providing interpreters in meetings with parents, or were tapping staff members and volunteers who had some knowledge of the family’s language, but not enough to explain complicated special education and legal documents.
The problems were further exacerbated when the school systems also failed to provide parents with translated documents, including report cards and individualized education plans that guarantee specific services to address their child’s disabilities, according to the complaints.
The Lawrence complaint was filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in February 2015 by the Disability Law Center; the Braintree complaint was filed with the same agency last May by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Both Boston-based nonprofits represent affected parents in each district.
“It’s an absolutely terrible situation,” said Teresita Ramos, an attorney at the Law Reform Institute who formerly worked at the Disability Law Center. “These are kids who already are on the short end of the stick to begin with. . . . When there is no language access [for parents], you are taking away a huge system of support for these children because their parents don’t understand what is going on with them.”
Both school systems say they are making changes to their special education programs to ensure that all parents, regardless of their proficiency in English, can be fully engaged in their children’s schooling.
The investigations are the most recent in a series of federal probes over the years into whether Massachusetts school systems are providing adequate programs for students from immigrant households. Those probes have led to settlement agreements in Boston, Somerville, and Worcester requiring them to bring services for English language learners into compliance with federal law.
The cases in many ways reflect the changing demographics of the state’s student population and the school systems’ struggles to keep up with those changes. Over the past two decades, the percentage of students lacking fluency in English has doubled to 9 percent of the 954,000 students enrolled in public schools statewide.
Lawrence said it provided federal investigators with requested documents in December 2015, but still has not received a determination on whether there were any violations.
Meanwhile, the school system has been overhauling its special education programs and appointed a task force about two years ago to develop a five-year strategic plan. That plan stresses adopting a philosophy of inclusion, such as teaching special education students in classrooms with their peers instead of segregating them, and making sure parents are part of the process of developing their child’s education plan.
Lawrence also has begun contracting with an outside agency to provide translation and offering interpretation training to school staff, which 18 employees have completed.
“Better, more efficient communication is an important piece” of the plan, Christopher Markuns, a school system spokesman, said in an e-mail. “As the roadmap lays out, there is a lot of work still to do, but the progress is encouraging and [special education] services are in a much better place than just a couple years ago.”
Braintree said it is cooperating with the Office for Civil Rights to ensure that families for whom English is a second language have access to school programs.
“We are working hard to ensure that we are providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students and families in our community,” said Superintendent Frank Hackett in a statement, while declining to comment on the specifics of the complaint.
Hackett said the Braintree school system is working to enhance access to information about programs and services to families who are not fluent in English. The school system is also translating more school documents into multiple languages.
“We are continuously improving our capacity to provide interpreter services to families who request these services,” Hackett said.
It remains unclear when the federal inquiries will conclude.
In a statement, the US Education Department, which declined to comment on the specific cases, said the Office for Civil Right’s “goal is to ensure investigations are conducted in a thorough, consistent manner. The length of time to resolve a case depends on a number of factors, including the number and complexity of the issues raised.”