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Lawsuit: CPS Shortchanging Bilingual Special Education Students

A federal lawsuit says special needs students in Chicago are denied help due to inadequate English translation services for their parents.

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A pedestrian walks past the Dirksen Federal Courthousein Chicago on June 1, 2015. A lawsuit was filed at the courthouse Monday that alleges CPS isn't providing services to non-English speaking parents of students with disabilities. (AP Photo/Christian K. Lee)

A pedestrian walks past the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago on June 1, 2015. A lawsuit was filed at the courthouse Monday that alleges CPS isn’t providing services to non-English speaking parents of students with disabilities. (AP Photo/Christian K. Lee)

Chicago Public Schools systemically violates the rights of students with disabilities by denying or delaying them services when it fails to translate key documents or provide skilled translators for non-English speaking parents, a class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Chicago on Monday alleges.

Some 41 percent of the 52,000 students in CPS’ special education program have parents for whom English is not their native language, according to the federal lawsuit filed by the group Equip for Equality. The group’s vice president, Olga Pribyl, said they’ve come across dozens of parents who failed to get documents in a language they could comprehend and did not get proper translation services.

Pribyl, who oversees special education legal services for the group, believes there are many more parents out there.

“We have been concerned [about whether] the parents we aren’t representing are getting what they need for their students,” she said.

The lawsuit points out that federal laws — which are designed to ensure students with disabilities receive a quality education — say parents should be able to participate in special education planning meetings for their their children.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman said the school district is reviewing the lawsuits’ claims. In an email response, he also said the school district will “move quickly” to make any necessary improvements.

“We have committed to a comprehensive review of our special education program to ensure our students and families receive the best possible services,” Passman said.

The school district this month acknowledged that students who are bilingual and also in the special education program need extra support. Officials this month announced plans to hire 46 extra staff to specifically support English learners in special education.

CPS also noted that the school district’s special education procedural manual requires a translator be provided in meetings for non-English speaking parents.

But the lawsuit alleges that the translators are often staff who happen to be bilingual but are not trained interpreters. This leads to problems when translators summarize what parents or CPS staff say without passing along complete messages, the lawsuit claims.

According to the lawsuit, CPS also often gives parents several documents in English — including their child’s individual education plan — which parents must sign to show agreement and consent.

Miscommunication has prevented children with significant disabilities from being identified for services for more than a year, caused significant delays in services, and even led to students being transferred or graduating without their parents knowledge, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is the latest problem for the school district’s long-troubled special education program.

CPS overhauled the program in 2016 but a WBEZ investigation last fall found that the overhaul resulted in children being denied services. The WBEZ investigation, and the outcry from advocates and parents, led to city and legislative hearings on the program, a pledge by CPS’ new CEO to make changes to the program, and an ongoing state public inquiry.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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