Parents of Children With Autism Who Were Told to 'Learn English' Sue NYC Education Department for Discrimination After Being Refused Translation Services

A group of Spanish and Chinese-speaking families have launched a lawsuit against New York City's Department of Education (DOE) in the Eastern District of New York after allegedly being refused translation services and told to "learn English" instead.

In the lawsuit, launched by Legal Services NYC, the parents, whose children all have developmental needs, allege that NYC school officials routinely denied them oral and written translations when communicating "vital" information about their children's well-being and academic progress, including in emergency situations.

In one such case, Hui Qin Liu, the mother of an 8-year-old student with autism, described to lawyers how she had received a call in English from her daughter's bus driver informing her that her daughter had suffered a seizure and was being taken to a nearby emergency room.

Liu, who speaks Mandarin, said that while she was able to decipher the name of the hospital, she was unable to understand any other information about her daughter's well-being.

The parent also described another occasion, in which her daughter had come home with bite marks on her body. When Liu made a written request for an explanation from her daughter's school, she received a phone call in English, which she was again unable to understand.

In another case, plaintiff Marcela Hernandez, said that when she asked for a Spanish interpreter ahead of a school meeting to discuss the education of her 17-year-old daughter, who also has autism, instead of receiving assistance, she was asked: "Why don't you learn English?"

The lawsuit further describes another case in which a parent, who is identified only as Jane Doe to protect her privacy as a survivor of gender-based violence, was refused translation services during communications about "persistent bullying," including "physical assaults by others students" against her 8-year-old child, who has autism.

The 8-year-old, identified as "A.C." had been "the victim of repeated and persistent bullying" at their former school and "on at least four to five occasions…came home from school with open wounds and/or bruises on his face, back, arms and/or legs," the lawsuit states.

"When Ms. Doe called the school to discuss this issue, they refused to provide her with an interpreter and would not speak with her on the phone," it continues. Then, when the mother went to the school in person to try to get information about the incidents, school staff asked a teacher who spoke limited Mandarin to translate.

"However, as a result of inadequate translation, Ms. Doe was not able to fully understand how her son was injured, who else was involved in these incidents, and what steps the school was taking to ensure that they did not continue," the lawsuit said.

Additionally, the mother was never informed of her right to ask for a written report or investigation into the incidents or advised as to what safety measures, if any, could be taken to help her child.

In the lawsuit, Legal Services NYC says its plaintiffs' cases represent a "systemic and longstanding" failure of New York City's education department to provide Limited English Proficient parents "with the opportunity to participate fully and meaningfully in their children's educations."

"As a parent, I find it unconscionable that information about my child could be denied or withheld because of the language I speak," Amy Leipziger, a senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC, said in a statement.

"In this case, the DOE repeatedly denied [Limited English Proficient] parents critical information about their children's health, well-being, and education by refusing to provide interpreters and translation services, causing the parents unnecessary fear and anxiety and resulting in a denial of services and support for their children," Leipziger said.

"The DOE has a clear legal obligation to give LEP parents meaningful access to their children's education, yet time and time again, they refused to do so," she continued.

"Parents of children with disabilities have a hard enough time navigating the school system to ensure their children get an appropriate education without unnecessary obstacles. We intend to keep fighting to ensure that every student in NYC gets the quality education they deserve," the lawyer said.

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, New York State Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz said she was "horrified to learn that the NYC DOE has repeatedly denied interpretation and translation services to parents in this City."

"The DOE has marginalized perhaps the most vulnerable members of our school community—LEP parents of students with disabilities who depend and trust the DOE to provide quality educational services and support to their children," she continued.

"New York City holds itself out to be a beacon of inclusion and opportunity. The idea that the NYC DOE refused language access to parents and told to 'learn English' is appalling," Cruz said. "I applaud Legal Services NYC for filing this complaint against the NYC DOE and for taking the lead on securing justice for these families and others like them around the city."

The New York City Department of Education has not immediately responded to a request for comment for this article from Newsweek.

Students, France
Pupils take part in the first written test in philosophy as part of the Baccalaureat at a school in Paris on June 15, 2017. A group of parents of children with autism have launched a lawsuit against the New York City Education Department alleging discrimination after being told to 'learn English.' Getty/MARTIN BUREAU