Chicago Public Schools Faces Class Action Lawsuit Over Failure to Support Non-English Speaking Parents of Children with Disabilities

Written by Anna Karnaze

On Monday, January 29, 2018, Equip for Equality filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), alleging their failure to adequately support limited English proficiency (LEP) parents of CPS students with disabilities as required by law. According to the complaint, 52,903 CPS students received special education services through the implementation of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) during the 2016–17 school year. Of those students, 42% lived in households where English is not spoken. This includes over 19,000 households that communicate in Spanish, over 300 that communicate in Polish, nearly 300 that communicate in Arabic, and nearly 200 that communicate in Chinese. Equip For Equality, on behalf of these families, asserts that CPS and ISBE are systematically failing to meet their legal obligations to parents by not providing them with timely and written translations of vital IEP process documents, qualified interpreters during IEP meetings and throughout the dispute resolution process, and adequate notice of their rights under the law.

The complaint alleges that these systematic failures by CPS and ISBE constitute actionable legal violations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), the Equal Education Opportunities Act (EEOA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Specifically, plaintiffs assert that CPS and ISBE are failing to provide meaningful parental participation as required under IDEA, engaging in intentional, language-based national origin discrimination prohibited by Title VI and the EEOA, and denying a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to children with disabilities of LEP parents as required under Section 504.

Equip for Equality filed this class action lawsuit along with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, which is providing pro bono representation. Equip for Equality, a private, not-for-profit organization established in 1985, serves as Illinois’s federally mandated Protection and Advocacy System and provides self-advocacy assistance, legal services, public policy advocacy, disability rights education, and abuse investigations on behalf of people with disabilities throughout the state. Its Special Education Clinic provides assistance to and advocates on behalf of students with disabilities and their parents, and works to protect these students’ right to a free, appropriate public education. Through the use of their Special Education Helpline, Equip for Equality is also able to provide these legal services to a more diverse group of families.

This is not the first time a school district has faced a class action lawsuit asserting violations on behalf of LEP parents of students with disabilities. Though this issue has yet to make its way through most circuits, a federal judge in Pennsylvania recently denied a school district’s motion to dismiss a similar class action lawsuit, alleging violations under IDEA, Section 504, the ADA, Title VI, and the EEOA. In that case, T.R. v. School District of Philadelphia (E.D. Penn. 2016), the judge found that plaintiffs did state a claim by alleging that the school district’s refusal to provide translated documents or a qualified interpreter during meetings prevented parents from meaningfully participating in their children’s special education meetings as required by law.

In light of the recent ruling in T.R., this class action lawsuit against CPS stands a reasonably good chance of success, at least when it comes to surviving a motion to dismiss. A ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor in this case would require CPS to provide, among other relief, timely translation of all vital IEP documents, written translations of these documents for LEP parents, notification of LEP parents’ rights to receive translated documents and competent interpretation services in their native language, the development of a protocol to identify parents in need of these services, and a new written policy for providing qualified interpreters at IEP meetings. ISBE would also be required to provide these services for LEP parents of children with disabilities that are going through the dispute resolution process. These changes would go a long way to help reduce barriers to educational opportunities faced by students with disabilities, and would significantly improve the ability of LEP parents to meaningfully participate in the educational programming of their children.