Ed, Justice Depts Eye Treatment of Hispanics in Louisiana

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, jointly with the U.S. Department of Education, has announced that it is launching an investigation into the treatment of Hispanic students by the Jefferson Parish school system in Louisiana. The investigation will look into a complaint submitted by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleging that the school district is not complying with the federal requirements not to discriminate against students based on their race, color or national origin.

Mark Waller, writing for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, said that the civil rights group, based in Montgomery, Alabama, was alerted to several instances of harassment against Latino students in Jefferson Parish. Specifically, the complaint cites problems at West Jefferson High School, where a number of students were asked to produce their social security numbers and told that they would not be able to graduate until they turned over the information.

The law center also complained about a widespread lack of translation services for meetings with Spanish-speaking parents and students and a lack of school documents provided in Spanish. The federal agencies said they still are reviewing those issues.

Jefferson Parish officials deny the allegations and point to a number of steps they have taken to assist Spanish-speaking families of their students, including providing academic materials in Spanish and employing Spanish-speakers to ease the communication barrier. Jefferson Parish is arguing that they are allowed by law to ask for students’ social security numbers as long as students are not required to turn them over. Those who can not provide a SSN are assigned a Louisiana numerical ID.

Acting Superintendent James Meza also said on Friday that the district has further stepped up its efforts on reaching out to Spanish speakers. Many principals are attending a six-week Spanish class, he said. The district is emphasizing hiring bilingual teachers. Administrators are pushing increased examination of the best approaches to teaching students learning to speak English. And the school district’s handbook includes more explanation of the rules on Social Security cards and state-assigned identification.

“We have made every effort to welcome and serve the Latino community,” Meza said. “We’re taking every step possible.”

Meza said that the problems described in the complaint aren’t institutional. He admitted that, as with any large district, there are people who don’t act in accordance with the law — a problem that affects both Hispanic and non-Hispanic students. However, Meza said that the district will fully cooperate with the federal investigation. To answer parents’ questions about the progress of the investigation, the district has opened phone lines staffed with multi-lingual support personnel.

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