Translators at ARD meetings?

Consider the broad spectrum of English language speaking skills. I’m happy to be living in our largely monolingual culture because I’m no good in any other language. I would not rate my Spanish speaking skills to even reach the “getting by” stage. I’m fine with “buenas dias” “gracias” and “dos margaritas por favor” but that’s about it. Put me in a meeting with multiple people speaking rapidly in Spanish about complicated matters and I’m out of luck. I’d have a hard time advocating for my child at an ARD meeting held in Spanish.

We know that there are many people in Texas who are not native English speakers and yet they have enough skills to “get by.” They can ride the city bus, pay the tab at the store, and handle basic interactions with co-workers. But how do people with “getting by” skills manage at an ARD meeting?

It’s becoming a legal issue thanks to an interesting lawsuit percolating along. The suit is not aimed at any school district. Instead, the sole defendant is T.E.A. The accusation is that T.E.A. has set a standard for providing interpretive help at ARDs that is in direct conflict with the federal standard.

The federal regulations require state agencies to “take whatever action is necessary to ensure that the parent understands the proceedings of the IEP Team meeting, including arranging for an interpreter for parents with deafness or whose native language is other than English.” 34 CFR 300.322€.

It would be crazy to take that statement literally. Think of the millions of people who speak excellent English even though it was not their first language. Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger come to mind. Do you think they’d need an interpreter at an ARD? Not likely.

Then there is the Texas regulation which requires that documents be provided in a person’s native tongue if they are “unable to speak English.” 19 T.A.C. 89.1050(f). If “unable” means completely unable to speak a word of English, then it is equally crazy. Surely the person whose English vocabulary is 50 words or fewer needs some help at an ARD.

The lawsuit against Commissioner Morath alleges that “unable to speak English” violates the federal standard and disregards the needs of all of those parents who can say “hello” and “thank you” and “have a good day” but not much else.

The court refused to dismiss the case. T.E.A. made two arguments. First, it argued that the plaintiff should have to “exhaust administrative remedies” by pursuing a special education due process hearing. The court rejected that, noting that such an effort would be futile, since the hearing officer would be unable to override a state regulation.

The Agency’s second argument was along the lines of “don’t sue us. Sue the school districts.” The Agency pointed out that it did not directly communicate with parents, nor did it prevent local districts from being as generous as they wanted to be with the provision of interpreters. The court rejected that argument also, noting that IDEA makes state agencies responsible for ensuring that parents can meaningfully participate in ARD meetings.

So the case will continue and the Dawg will keep an eye on it. This particular lawsuit was predictable, given the mismatch between Texas and federal regulatory standards. We know how that conflict will be decided. In the meantime this is an issue that calls for some attention at the local level. When we speak of “meaningful” parent participation, there is nothing more important than helping out those parents who are not comfortable or fluent in English.

It's Garcia v. Morath, decided by the federal court for the Western District of Texas on __________, 2023. It’s cited in Special Ed Connection at 82 IDELR 106.


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