Civil and Disability Rights Activists Watch Philadelphia Class Action Suit Closely

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August 25, 2015; CBS Philly

Barbara Galarza, a mother with a daughter in the School District of Philadelphia, knew her daughter had learning issues. In 2013, the charter school she had attended since 2010 evaluated her, giving her a classification of ADHD and an individualized education plan (IEP) that would serve as a roadmap for her educational goals through the coming year.

Before she began receiving services, however, she had to transfer back into a public school in the district, which decided to conduct its own evaluation. Ms. Galarza, who has limited English skills, signed a bilingual consent form. What she did not realize at the time was that unlike the previous evaluation, which had been conducted in her daughter’s first language, Spanish, the district’s evaluation was conducted with a non-bilingual psychologist.

When the re-evaluation report was sent to Ms. Galarza, it was entirely in English. Thinking that it was the same diagnosis and recommendation as the previous evaluation, which she had read and understood thoroughly, she went in to a meeting with her daughter’s high school psychologist, a meeting that took place entirely in English. Expecting to talk about her daughter’s ADHD, what she found out instead was that the re-evaluation classified her daughter with an intellectual disability, a significantly more involved diagnosis requiring an entirely different set of services. Moreover, according to what she told writer Regina Medina of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the psychologist went on to reassure Ms. Galarza that “it’s better this way,” because her daughter would “get a lot more benefits.”

Ms. Galarza is now one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal class action lawsuit alleging that thousands of similarly situated families were denied the opportunity to fully participate in the special education process on behalf of their children because of limited English language skills. As one of the plaintiffs’ representatives, attorney Michael Churchill with the Public Interest Law Center described Ms. Galarza’s experience: “She has never seen the document, has no way of comprehending what the full scope of the meeting is. And she breaks out in tears at this information that is being given to her for the very first time.”

The issue is not an isolated or new one. According to the complaint, the School District of Philadelphia routinely refuses to provide parents with translated documents in a timely manner or provide sufficient translation, effectively preventing them from making informed decisions about their children’s education. Another of the plaintiffs’ representatives, Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center, claims the problem has persisted for many years. “After years of trying to address this issue with the District, we felt that the matter needed to be addressed by the courts.”

More than 70 percent of the nearly 26,000 families in the school district who do not speak English as a first language have requested documents in their native language. According to the complaint, in the 2013-14 school year, there were close to 2,000 students with IEPs whose home language was not English.

In 1975, Congress passed federal legislation that came to be known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The law, which has been revised many times over the years, guarantees a free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities, ages 3–21. It specifically delineates the rights of children with disabilities—and their parents—in the special education IEP process, requiring that all decisions relative to a child’s evaluation, education plan and placement be made with the parents’ meaningful involvement. The law lays out procedural safeguards to ensure parent involvement, which include explicit requirements that all relevant information be presented to parents in their native language.

What this means in Ms. Galarza’s case is that, by law, she had the right to receive her daughter’s re-evaluation in Spanish in a sufficient amount of time (at least ten days) prior to an in-person meeting to discuss it. In her meeting with the school psychologist, she had a right to an interpreter so that she could have a meaningful and productive conversation about her daughter’s new diagnosis and IEP.

Another of the lead plaintiffs, “A.G.,” was born in the Dominican Republic and was enrolled in the ninth grade there when his mother passed away suddenly. After moving to Philadelphia to live with his extended family, he was placed in ninth grade for two more years until his aunt requested that he be evaluated for special education services. Despite requesting language assistance (and despite A.G.’s enrollment in ESL classes), the District failed to provide the appropriate documents in Spanish. Even after his aunt filed a due process complaint, all subsequent documents were barely translated and after receiving an IEP with only the section headings written in Spanish, she had nothing to read at the meeting or take home to review.

The special education process can be an arduous journey for families in the best of circumstances. It is a complex, multi-tiered process, requiring numerous IEP, placement and follow-up meetings with school staff, psychologists, therapists, and teachers. While Ms. Galarza and A.G.’s aunt, Margarita Peralta, had the knowledge and self-assurance to advocate for their children, despite the language barrier, many others in their situations are unaware of the laws protecting them or are too fearful to ask for what they need.

“Federal disability and civil rights laws mandate meaningful participation by parents in the special education process,” says Attorney McInerny. “When parents are shut out, students suffer and are denied access to critical services they need to make progress. This is why our disability laws are so clear on the obligations of schools to provide language assistance.”

Ms. Galarza is more adamant. Reflecting back on the school psychologist’s insistence that her daughter’s new diagnosis was “better,” she said, “Nobody would want news like that, it’s not logical. For me that’s not normal, to be happy to get more benefits.”—Patricia Schaefer