With Latino populations burgeoning in the South, the Southern Poverty Law Center has started filing complaints against school districts alleging discrimination against Latinos and Spanish-speaking families. The most recent action came this week, when the civil rights organization filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education against the school system in Jefferson Parish, La. The complaint alleges that the district has not provided interpreters for Spanish-speaking parents. It is similar to complaints previously filed against the Wake County Public Schools and Durham Public Schools in North Carolina.
The issue is critical because Latinos have only recently become a growing population in the South, and school districts are dealing with new challenges as a result. For example, Latino students make up about 17 percent of the students in the Jefferson Parish school district, and limited English proficient students are about eight percent of the enrollment. In its complaint, the organization described how a 7-year-old boy in the Louisiana district had to interpret for his mother at a parent-teacher conference, but was ill-equipped to do so. The mother, who has two other children, no longer attends conferences or open houses because the district doesn’t make Spanish services available.
“Jefferson Parish public schools must end these discriminatory practices and recognize that these students have the same rights as English-speaking families,” said Jennifer Coco, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana office, in a SPLC news release. “This is about ensuring every student in the district has an opportunity to succeed and that all parents have a meaningful opportunity to participate in their child’s education.”
The official complaint is on behalf of 16 Latino families, and also says that employees harass children about their citizenship status. The organization describes how a high school graduate was told she needed a social security number in order to graduate. Another student alleges a teacher called him a “wetback” during classes, but the employee was never disciplined.
District officials told the The Times-Picayune that they make English language learners a top priority and the population’s academic performance is improving. ”JPPSS is committed to providing support for all parents with (limited English proficiency) regardless of their primary language,” school system spokeswoman Monica Pierre told the newspaper. Pierre added that policy manuals in Spanish are available to parents.
The SPLC has filed two other complaints this year against the school district for discriminatory actions against black students.
The Civil Rights Act requires that districts provide parents information that they can understand in their language. That information can include written and verbal information about discipline, special education services, events and conferences. They also want more bilingual parent liaisons.
The SPLC also is noted for tracking hate groups across the United States, many of which discriminate against Latinos. It also takes on immigrant justice issues, many of which arise in the South. The growth of Hispanic immigrants in the region has sparked tensions, leading to the passage of laws regarding immigration status in Alabama and Georgia. Courts recently blocked parts of the laws in both states. The Justice Department also recently announced a new civil rights unit will open in Alabama that will address issues including immigrant rights.