Complaint alleges bias by New Orleans school officials

By Michael Kenzelman
The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Legal advocates on August 2 asked federal authorities to investigate their claims that New Orleans school officials discriminate against the parents of Asian American and Latino students.

A complaint filed with the Justice Department accuses the Orleans Parish School Board, the Recovery School District and three charter school operators of failing to provide adequate translation and interpretation services to parents with limited English proficiency.

“The lack of clear communication channels has a severe impact on the ability of (limited English proficient) parents to engage in and monitor their children’s academic performance,” the complaint alleges.

Attorneys for the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed the complaint on behalf of Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking parents. Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said it has received the complaint and will review it.

The Justice Department’s civil rights division already is investigating similar allegations by the Southern Poverty Law Center that Jefferson Parish public schools discriminate against Latino students. In its August 2012 complaint, the SPLC accused the suburban New Orleans district of failing to provide adequate translation services to Latino students and their parents.

“While VAYLA has provided us no papers to review, we can say that over the past five years literacy and math proficiency have risen from 37 to 63 percent of students in New Orleans,” said state Superintendent of Education John White in an emailed statement August 2. “In a district where the vast majority of students come to us from low-income families, that progress speaks volumes about the commitment of our educators to the rights of all New Orleans children to receive an excellent education, irrespective of race, class, or home language.”

Representatives of the school board didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment on the complaint.

Thomas L. Mariadason, an attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the group has been coordinating efforts with the SPLC.

“This is a persistent problem for both the Vietnamese community and the Latino community going back before (Hurricane) Katrina,” Mariadason said of the 2005 storm, which flooded most of New Orleans and spawned an ambitious effort to reform the city’s troubled public schools.

“The involvement of parents has a significant impact on the outcomes of students,” he added.

Parents are routinely forced to use their children as interpreters to communicate with school staff members, the complaint claims.

“Nearly every Complainant reported feeling hesitant to solicit information on their children’s academic progress, health, or social well-being because interpretation support was inconsistent, inadequate, or nonexistent,” it says.

The complaint accuses school officials of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Charter operators Collegiate Academies, Einstein Group Inc. and Advocates for Academic Excellence in Education also are named as target of the complaint’s allegations. (end)

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