Metro

In Holyoke, Latino parents to sue over interpretation services

A group of Latino parents plans to file a federal lawsuit Monday against the state and Holyoke school officials for failing to consistently translate school documents and provide interpreters for parents who don’t speak English fluently, preventing them from fully participating in their children’s education.

The lawsuit contends that Holyoke has refused to provide the services, which are required under federal civil rights laws, for more than two decades, according to an advance copy of the lawsuit provided to the Globe.

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The problems have persisted even after state education officials seized control of the school system two years ago. The state’s inaction surprised many Latino families, because state education officials had raised repeated concerns, since at least 1996, about the lack of translated documents and interpreters when they conducted civil rights audits of the school system, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit suggests that such problems probably go well beyond Holyoke, noting that state education officials have faulted more than 100 school systems in recent years for failing to provide these kinds of services after reviewing student files and other documents.

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Padres Latinos de las Escuelas de Springfield y Holyoke, an organization of Latino parents, said it is filing the lawsuit as a last resort.

“Nothing has changed,” said Glorimar Corsino, chairwoman of the parent group, known more commonly by its acronym, PLESH, in an interview. “We still have plenty of families suffering.”

Almost half of the 5,300 students in Holyoke live in households where English is not the primary language. About 80 percent of all students are Latino. The lawsuit focuses largely on children who need special education services.

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The lawsuit is the latest attempt by immigration advocates and parents to compel school systems to bridge the language divide between them and the growing number of immigrant families settling in the state. Students who are classified as “English language learners” now represent nearly 10 percent of the state’s public school enrollment.

Over the past two years, federal civil rights investigators have opened inquiries in Braintree and Lawrence, which is also in state receivership, after receiving complaints from advocates and parents that those school systems were failing to translate all documents in a timely fashion and not providing interpreters in meetings with parents who don’t speak English.

Advocates say the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is setting a bad example for other districts by failing to remedy the problems in the two districts it has direct control over, Holyoke and Lawrence.

“Part of our litigation is to try to get the department to take its job seriously,” said one of the attorneys representing the parents, Robert LeRoux Hernandez of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, a group established by the Legislature to protect the legal rights of persons involved in mental health and retardation programs.

“Every year children are losing ground,” he said. “We don’t want to wait anymore. We want to make sure the proper steps are taken to address this problem.”

The other attorneys handling the case are from Holland & Knight LLP and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which is also representing parents in Braintree.

The lawsuit, which seeks immediate resolution of the problems and attorney fees, is being filed against Jeff Wulfson, the state’s acting commissioner for elementary and secondary education; Stephen Zrike Jr., the state receiver for the Holyoke school system; other school system administrators; and school principals.

‘Every year children are losing ground. We don’t want to wait anymore. We want to make sure the proper steps are taken to address this problem.’

Robert LeRoux Hernandez, an attorney for parents, on the lack of interpreters and document translations 
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Jacqueline Reis, a state education spokeswoman, said that Wulfson and Zrike could not comment because they had not seen a copy of the lawsuit.

The problems in Holyoke, like those in Lawrence and Braintree, focus on parents who are not fluent in English and whose children need special education services. In many cases, interpreters are not on hand when non-English speaking parents meet with teachers and administrators to make plans for what kinds of interventions their children need, the lawsuit said.

Often the documents outlining what services the school system intends to provide are written only in English, preventing parents from knowing what kind of help their children will get, whether they think it is enough or not, and how they can help their children with school work at home.

Parents are then asked to sign off on the education plan, while a translated copy is not provided until months later.

The kinds of documents not consistently being translated include notices of meetings, evaluations for special education services, proposed individual education plans for students, disciplinary notices, student and parent handbooks, anti-bullying information, notices of events, and documents related to extracurricular activities, progress reports, special education documents, and other routine communications, according to the lawsuit.

“I don’t understand why the district is not providing these services,” Corsino said.

Making matters worse is that parents might not even know they are entitled to translated documents and interpreters because the school system’s handbook alerting parents to these rights is printed only in English, the attorneys said in an interview.

This is the second time in less than two years that questions have been raised about special education practices in Holyoke.

In December 2015, the Disability Law Center, a nonprofit organization in Boston, found that students in a program that serves emotionally challenged students were subjected to psychological abuse and excessive force to punish even trivial offenses.

The state education department, which conducted its own review, later concluded a “systemic failure” by staff and senior administrators led to improper uses of excessive force.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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