Know your rights: Your child’s school must communicate in a language you understand

You shouldn’t have to rely on your child to translate conversations. Instead, a school should provide effective interpretation and translation.

By Maria Benevento and Trace Salzbrenner | The Wichita Beacon

Report cards, parent-teacher conferences, handbooks, permission slips. If parents and guardians don’t speak the same languages as their child’s teachers and staff, those routine school communications get more complex. 

But language shouldn’t become a barrier to families understanding nuances of their children’s education. 

Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights as well as the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice spell out what families should expect under federal civil rights and education laws: effective and competent communication in a language they understand. 

Wichita Public Schools’ population is 37% Hispanic. That is more than 17,000 students. 

USD 259 just completed a large enrollment event for Spanish-speaking families, but there is still time to enroll online and in person on July 25 and 26. They may also enroll online and call the language line at USD 259 at 316-866-8000. 

Here are key things to know about what parents or guardians whose primary language is not English are entitled to regarding their child’s education. 

School districts should proactively look for parents and guardians who need language assistance 

School officials shouldn’t assume a parent or guardian is comfortable speaking, reading, writing or understanding English even if their student isn’t considered an English language learner. 

A home language survey is one way a school could find parents with limited English proficiency. They would send the survey, translated in all languages that are common in the area, to all district parents and guardians. 

When enrolling your student in a USD 259 school, you will be asked about your preferred language. That language will be used to help you enroll and in the future for updates and school news. USD 259 has more than 100 languages spoken by families at home. 

Alert the school if officials haven’t identified the adult who needs resources in a language other than English. 

Parents have the right to receive assistance and information in a language they understand for school

School officials should ensure all parents have access to important communication — such as enrollment information, report cards, student discipline policies, special education meetings, parent-teacher conferences, handbooks and permission slips — in the language they speak. 

Maria Kury, Spanish language specialist at USD 259, said Wichita Public Schools has a dedicated Spanish language Facebook and Instagram, partners with local radio stations La Raza 99.7 and Radio Lobo 106.5 for regular school news programming, and has interpreters available for in-person conversations. 

USD 259 also uses Parent Link, a digital system that allows them to send information directly to parents via email or text in any language. 

Language assistance should be free, effective and competent in your school

Being bilingual does not automatically qualify someone to interpret conversations or translate documents. Interpreting or translating in a school setting requires knowledge of specialized terms and training on the role, ethics and confidentiality of interpreting. 

Schools should provide a competent interpreter or translator rather than asking a student or an untrained staff member to facilitate the conversation.

“There is a lot more that goes into interpretation than just knowing two languages,” said Rommy Vargas, director of education and engagement of interpreters for Alce Su Voz, a Spanish language access advocacy group. She explains that someone has to deeply understand subjects and know how to accurately translate spoken words quickly, among other things. That is why parents should ask for a professional interpreter when they need one. 

Help is available for parents struggling to receive proper communication from their child’s school

Parents should reach out to their school first to make sure they know there is an issue. Most educators want the best for the students and their families, and there may have just been a mistake. 

Kury said that parents should feel comfortable reaching out to the social media page as well. The messages are monitored by staff and can help direct parents to the correct places to file complaints or receive more information. 

Parents and guardians can also contact Alce Su Voz. The group can help you navigate through the process of a complaint and help advocate for you. 

If needed, parents and guardians can file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights 

A complaint can be filed through the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ online portal, by mail, or over email. The person filing the complaint does not have to be the one that experienced discrimination but it does have to be timely. The act of discrimination had to have occurred in the previous 180 days. 

More questions about the process are answered on the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights website.

What rights do undocumented students have? 

In the United States, the right to public K-12 education doesn’t depend on immigration status. 

Undocumented students can enroll in their local public schools after a 1982 Supreme Court decision overturned a Texas law.  

That means schools shouldn’t put up barriers to undocumented or other immigrant students enrolling.

Schools can’t have enrollment requirements that exclude undocumented students

Guidance from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights says schools may be violating federal law if they “prohibit or discourage” students from enrolling because of their own or their parents’ or guardians’ immigration status.  

With the exception of unhoused students, most public school students have to prove their age and that they live in the district before they can enroll in school. That’s the case for undocumented students and other immigrants, but schools have to provide them with viable options to meet the requirements.

For example, utility bills are a common proof of residence option, and schools could accept foreign birth certificates, religious or hospital records, or an affidavit from a parent as proof of age. Locally, USD 259 accepts multiple forms of identification. If a U.S. birth certificate is not available, it is advised that you call the school so they can help you determine what is an acceptable substitute. 

A school district can’t insist that families submit U.S. birth certificates for students or government-issued photo identification for parents or guardians, the guidance states. Schools can request but not require students’ Social Security numbers and race and ethnicity data during enrollment. Contact the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights if you experience discrimination. 

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon