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Advocacy groups file federal lawsuit against school district

A class-action suit claims the district has failed to translate documents and interpret for Limited English Proficiency parents, children.

Philadelphia school district headquarters. (Bob Laramie / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphia school district headquarters. (Bob Laramie / Staff Photographer)Read more

WHEN BARBARA Galarza was told by a high school psychologist last year that her teen daughter had "intellectual disabilities," she began to "cry, cry, cry." She still had another surprise coming.

The non-bilingual psychologist told her, "Don't worry, it's better this way. She'll get a lot of benefits," Galarza recalled yesterday in an interview conducted in Spanish. "She was heartless."

"Nobody would want news like that. It's not logical," she said. "For me that's not normal, [to] be happy to get more benefits."

Galarza, who has limited English proficiency, says her experience is not unique. She's one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit filed Friday against the school district, claiming thousands of parents and their children are illegally denied the opportunity to participate in the special-education process because of limited English ability.

"The District has systematically and with deliberate indifference denied essential translation and interpretation services to LEP [Limited English Proficient] parents of children with disabilities as well as to the children themselves," according to the complaint.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia by the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.

The complaint alleges that the school district refuses to sufficiently interpret or provide parents with translated documents in a timely manner. This prevents parents "from participating in meetings and making informed decisions regarding educational placements and services," according to the filing.

Under state law, for example, Galarza should have been provided evaluation reports in her native language 10 days before the meeting with the school psychologist, to become informed for the meeting, said Maura McInerney, senior attorney with the Education Law Center.

A second evaluation concluded that Galarza's now 17-year-old daughter, identified as "T.R." in the lawsuit, does not have intellectual disabilities, but has learning disabilities and a mood disorder.

According to the filing, 25,990 families in the district don't speak English as their first language. About 19,000 of those families have told the district they want their documents in their native language. About 1,500 English language learners received special-education services in 2013, along with 1,887 students with Individual Learning Plans who lived in homes where English was not the primary language.

Galarza said she hopes "some good will happen" from the suit, adding that the district is "not functioning how it should."