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Education News

Refused Written Translations, Parents Win New Guarantee For Special Needs Children

The new state rule clarifies that an audio-taped translation can’t be just a recording of a meeting. It has to cover all aspects of a child’s individualized education program.



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Rosa Aguirre stands with her daughter Lupita, a freshman in high school
Laura Isensee
Rosa Aguirre has had to fight for a lot of services for her special needs daughter, Lupita, including transportation to school.

School districts across Texas are facing tighter translation rules for families who speak Spanish and have special needs children.

The new rules, which take effect this week, stem from a saga involving the Houston Independent School District and families fighting for written translations — and not audio recordings of long special education meetings.

"Parents who speak Spanish, I believe we have the right to know what they're saying, what they're requiring, or what they want us to sign," said Rosa Aguirre, whose has a special needs daughter.

In 2014, Disability Rights Texas filed two complaints with the Texas Education Agency on behalf of Aguirre and other parents, asking the state to investigate. It alleged that HISD routinely failed to provide Spanish-translated, written copies of their children's individualized education programs, or IEPs.

It's a key document for special needs children. It's almost like a contract between parents and the school district, so that they can collaborate and make sure the child makes meaningful progress.

But, when asked about written translations, HISD administrators told Aguirre and her attorney "a blatant no, sorry we don't do that," recounted Sarah Beebe, a supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas.

"It was just unacceptable to me," Beebe added.

In Houston schools, there almost 16,000 students enrolled in special education services. Almost 10,000 of them are Hispanic.

Sarah Beebe is a supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas. The advocacy group filed a complaint with the state on behalf of thousands of Spanish-speaking families in Houston for better translation services in special education.
Laura Isensee
Sarah Beebe is a supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas. The advocacy group filed a complaint with the state on behalf of thousands of Spanish-speaking families in Houston for better translation services in special education.

"We described it as really a discriminatory practice," Beebe said of their complaint.

She explained that the special education process is complex enough for any parent. It’s a maze with special forms, meetings and services that don’t always appear in regular education.

"When you add a language barrier and you don’t accommodate that language barrier, it is just made that much more difficult for that parent to work with the school and fully understand all of their rights, all of their child's rights, all the services that they can avail of themselves," Beebe said.

Instead of receiving written translations, parents like Aguirre received audio recordings from HISD of hours-long special education meetings, where parents and school officials hashed out students' cases.

One recording provided to Aguirre has pockets of noise distortions. The tape captured little Spanish from the interpreter at the meeting.

Aguirre called that meeting in 2013 because she was worried her daughter Lupita Carbajal wasn't receiving basic services, like enough water to drink, after she landed in the hospital. Lupita is now 14 years old and a freshman in high school. She has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair.

Lupita said that she doesn't understand why it's so hard for her mom to receive translations.

"It makes my mom mad and me mad, because, for my mom, it's hard to read it in English. Yeah," Lupita said.

Technically, Texas law allows for a written or audio-taped translation of a child's individualized education program. Beebe said that the federal education law is silent on the matter.

But when state officials investigated complaints from Aguirre and other parents, they determined the recordings from HISD didn’t qualify as IEP translations. They ordered written copies.

Beebe said that at first HISD responded by trying to change the state law on the issue and calling a meeting at the Texas Legislature.

HISD denies that characterization.

"There's been no lobbying around translations. There's just been a request to clarify the requirement," said Sowmya Kumar, assistant superintendent over special education at HISD.

Kumar said that currently translating is tedious and costly; they have to send the pages-long document to outside interpreters.

So HISD is working with a vendor to provide automated, simultaneous translations.

Called EasyIEP, the system is provided by Public Consulting Group and is used by districts across the country, including Dallas and Fort Worth.

Currently, the software program offers limited translations of basic information on an IEP, but the new version is expected to give "a comprehensive translation service in a more timely and seamless manner," according to PCG.

Kumar said she recently saw a demo: "We are then able to hit a translate button and out comes the same information in another language.”

HISD hopes to pilot the new translation service in January and fully implement it in 2016-17.

"We are certainly willing to go the extra mile," Kumar said, adding that if successful, the software could benefit students around the country.

But what's clear from the new state rules: an audio-taped translation can't be just a recording of a meeting. It has to cover all aspects of a child's individualized education program.

In addition, every parent must get a written copy of the original document in English at no cost.

That's good news for Rosa Aguirre.

"That's perfect because that way moms and the teachers can work together better, which is what the child needs," she said.

More information:

Special Education Complaint Investigative Report

TEA Systemic Complaint Against HISD

Special Education Complaint Investigative Report 2/6/15

Systemic TEA Complaint IEPs In Native Language