JEFFERSON , La. - A local school district is accused of discriminating against Latinos. And the Southern Poverty Law Center is asking federal authorities to investigate.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says parental involvement is key in making sure a child has a well-rounded education. But one Jefferson Parish parent said she's being denied equal access to information about her sixth grader son's education because she doesn't speak English.
The Honduras native asked us not to reveal her identity.
"I can't communicate with them," said the mother, in Spanish. "It's very hard for me because, I say, 'I want to see my son's grades, and they said there's no one who can translate in Spanish, no one here who knows Spanish."
In one instance, said the woman, her son, who qualifies for special education, had to be pulled out of class in order to translate for her. In another instance, when she scheduled an appointment and asked that a Spanish translator, one was not present.
"[My son's teacher] told me, 'No but you understand English, you understand me.' But in reality I don't understand English, I speak very little English," said the woman.
Districts that receive federal funding, including Jefferson Parish Public Schools, are required by law to provide parents with important information in a language they can understand.
That's why the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint Wednesday with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice on behalf of 16 Latino students in Jefferson Parish and their families.
"The Latino families in Jefferson Parish absolutely do not feel welcome in their schools," said Jennifer Coco, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Their attempts to even ask, 'Can I have an interpreter at these meetings?' are met with indifference or sometimes hostility."
The complaint asks that Jefferson Parish provide basic language access services and stop the practice of asking students for Social Security numbers, which violates civil rights laws.
It also says a recent graduate of West Jefferson High School was told she would not be able to graduate without proof of her Social Security number.
The complaint cites Maggiore Elementary as one school where translation services aren't available. That school is one of seven that is closing in a school consolidation.
It also says a rising sophomore transferred from West Jefferson High School after a teacher called him a racial slur and the school failed to act. It also cited widespread hostility.
But in a bilingual statement today, the Jefferson Parish Public School System said, "We are disappointed that the Southern Poverty Law Center has chosen to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. For the past two years, serving English Language Learners has been a priority for the Jefferson Parish Public School System. Our data supports academic gains among 3rd-8th grade Limited English Proficient students over a four-year period."
But data collected by a group who contracted with the Southern Poverty Law Center paints another picture. During a four-week study, the Washington, D.C. based Equal Rights Center tested the availability of Spanish-language services at individual schools and district-level English as a Second Language centers in Jefferson Parish Public Schools.
They found 70 percent of 50 sites called were unable to offer any Spanish-language assistance over the phone. In some instances, according to the study, the Jefferson Parish School staff laughed at the caller and hung up.
In other instances, they complained to other staff members, saying, "They are speaking to me in Spanish, like I know Spanish. Who do they think I am? I'm hanging up, I don't want to deal with this today," according to the report.
According to the report, 53 percent of 28 sites tested were not provided any Spanish-language assistance in person after requesting it and waiting for it. 14 percent of sites knew to contact district staff whose primary responsibility is to provide Spanish-language assistance, said the report.
"When parents are cut out from every single communication with their children, from understanding what their report card says to knowing when maybe there's behavioral problem at school," said Coco. "When parents can't help schools, then that child loses out."
Meanwhile, one mother continues to hope her son's school makes an effort to break down language barriers.
"I felt bad because I knew that the rights of Latinos are lower," she said.
"[It is] disappointing that the Southern Poverty Law Center continues to go to the media first with allegations without coming to the district to discuss issues involving our families," said acting Superintendent Dr. James Meza. "If there are concerns, we will immediately address them."
Jefferson Parish public schools said it offers Spanish-language versions of its Student and Parents Policy and Procedures Manual that includes disciplines policies, instruction and grading, attendance, graduation requirements and other documents.
"Jefferson Parish has a rich, diverse population that draws children from 50 countries speaking 34 languages. We have been proactively engaging all students and families in the Jefferson Parish Public School System, including those in the Latino community," said a spokesperson for the school system in a statement.
Meza said the school system will immediately address any concerns. He said Spanish-speaking parent liaisons are placed in many of the district's schools.
Jefferson Parish Public Schools said it issues state ID numbers to those students who cannot provide Social Security numbers, in accordance with state policy.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said it hopes the Justice Department and the Department of Education will launch an investigation.