Sting pushes TUSD translator upgrade

District staff and legal advisers take about six months to develop the plan required under the agreement.

Agreement at a glance.

When he enrolled at Catalina High Magnet School last February, “Hamid” didn’t get a locker or physical education uniform right away.

For several days, he couldn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria, either.

That’s because his mother couldn’t complete the forms. The Tucson Unified School District refused to translate them into the Iranian refugee’s native Farsi, the only language she and her son understood.

This year, Hamid and thousands of other Tucson Unified School District students should get better treatment.

Following a sting and a federal investigation, TUSD, which has the largest population of “limited English- proficient” students in the state, agreed to develop policies and procedures for interpretation and translation services.

Federal law requires school districts to provide help for any student whose native language is not English, and TUSD officials insist the needs of those students were already being met. “Prior to this, the procedures had not been actually written out,” Bilingual Department director Leonard Basurto said. “It was like practice that had been in place for a long time.” But an official with the task force conducting the sting said that is hard to prove.

“We like to believe … when the school system tells us that they have all of the policies and procedures in place,” said Kathy Poulos-Minott, task force coordinator. “But unfortunately, we have found out through the years that we need to test the reality of those statements.”

Hamid was among the TUSD students enrolled each year whose native tongue is one of 40 to 50 languages other than English. Between 10,000 and 11,000 of the more than 60,000 students in the district are assessed as limited English-proficient.

The most common foreign languages spoken by district students are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.

The 2001 sting by the independent National Limited English Proficiency Advocacy Task Force identified problems in two TUSD schools.

The task force is a nationwide coalition of groups supporting provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VI, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin because of language and cultural differences.

The sting began in January 2001, when Poulos-Minott came to Tucson for one of the task force’s “site visits.” A Portland, Maine, resident, she spent her vacation here and volunteered at Jewish Family Services.

“Jewish Family Services thoroughly checked my references and was aware of my work as an advocate,” Poulos-Minott said. “If I had told them that I might potentially file complaints … they probably would not have permitted me to volunteer.”

Through the agency, she and others met Hamid’s family, one of about 1,000 Iranian families in the Tucson area. His father remains in Iran after recently being released from prison, where he was serving time for his political beliefs and actions, Poulos-Minott said.

The Tucson Citizen agreed not to publish Hamid’s real name because his family is worried about retaliation.

When Poulos-Minott helped to registered Hamid at Catalina High, 3645 E. Pima St., school officials asked her to bring an interpreter. She agreed but insisted the school do so in the future. It never did.

Poulos-Minott enrolled her son at another TUSD school, Robins Elementary, 3939 N. Magnetite Lane. Seeing forms and paperwork there written only in English, she began to believe the problem was “systemic.”

She highlighted both situations, including general interpretation and translation failures by Catalina High’s Family Resource and Wellness Center, in the complaint she filed a year ago with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education. When TUSD learned of the subsequent federal investigation, it began negotiating a deal.

Basurto said the district decided to focus the agreement on its seven FRWC sites. “The Family Resource and Wellness Centers serve often some of our most needy families,” he said. “And many times those most needy families are immigrants and refugees, which means (the staffs) are very, very likely to encounter families that are limited English-proficient.”

In reaching the agreement, TUSD does not admit fault.

District administrative staff, regional superintendents, legal advisers and other staff took about six months to develop the plan required under the agreements, Monta?o said.

It will be implemented this fall, but not by the Aug. 15 start of school, Basurto said. For the most part, the plan must be in place by Sept. 30.

About a dozen documents were translated into the most common foreign languages. The district uses individuals and private companies for translations and interpretations that district staff cannot handle. District officials say the costs to implement the agreement will be nominal.

All 10,000 TUSD staff members will be instructed in the details of the agreement by the district’s Bilingual Education Department staff. And the district has expanded its Translation Services office offerings and consolidated with staff from other departments. Previously, translation services targeted native Spanish speakers.

“There’s never been an agreement in a school before that specifically addresses the provision of interpretation and translations in detail,” Poulos-Minott said. “These will be model agreements used throughout school systems throughout the entire country.”

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