Education

Group faults Durham schools' treatment of Latinos

Posted April 13, 2011 10:44 a.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2011 6:16 p.m. EDT

— One of North Carolina's largest school districts is discriminating against Latino students and their parents by failing to provide them with adequate resources, according to a nationally known civil rights advocacy group threatening to file a federal complaint.

But while the Southern Poverty Law Center's criticism is directed at Durham public schools, the dispute raises questions for districts around the state, where Latinos have become the fastest-growing segment of the school-age population. Linguistic hurdles, income gaps and lack of access to services like health care all contribute to making Latino children especially vulnerable, according to groups who study the issue.

Jerri Katzerman, director of educational advocacy for the Birmingham, Ala.-based SPLC, said her group has spoken to hundreds of families who have all said the same thing. 

"We have really serious situations where youngsters are feeling unwelcome in their schools," Katzerman said. "Youngsters routinely endure name-calling, they're called slurs. There are teachers and students who will mock them, their accents and their lack of English language ability."

Lawyers for the district are reviewing the center's accusations, schools spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said.

"We are committed to providing appropriate services to all students in Durham public schools and to complying with the requirements of federal law in serving students of all nationalities," she said.

The law center's complaint alleges problems in four areas: a hostile environment for students, limited access to Spanish language interpreters for parents and students, inadequate translation of school materials like report cards, progress reports and teachers' notes and lack of compliance with federal requirements for communicating with parents of children with low English proficiency.

In one case, Katzerman said, a student who had successfully completed coursework for students learning English was required to take an English proficiency test when he moved to a new school because of his Latino surname.

The SPLC received several complaints about Northern High School, where it is alleged that a teacher pushed a Latino student against a wall and told them to go back to their own country. A teacher there is also accused of using racial slurs against Latinos. 

At an unnamed middle school, there are claims that a substitute teacher had all the students with Spanish last names in class stand up, and he took video of them with his cellphone.

More broadly, the center says there are three Spanish language interpreters for Durham's 54 public schools, which serve roughly 6,000 Spanish-speaking households, a ratio the group says is inadequate to meet the needs of parents and their children.

"To the extent that translation is happening at all, it's extremely erratic," Katzerman said. "Some things are translated, some aren't. We have parents who routinely feel inhibited from being able to be a part of the school community, because they receive very limited information in Spanish."

The law center wants to meet with Durham schools officials to discuss its concerns, warning that it will file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights if the district doesn't take steps to change the situation.

With over 32,500 students, Durham is one of the largest school districts in the state. About 21 percent of its students are Latino.

Some members of Durham's Latino community have complained about treatment in the schools to El Centro Hispano, a community organization based in the city that also serves Chapel Hill and Carrboro, according to Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, the organization's president. But Rocha-Goldberg said El Centro has had success acting as a mediator between the schools and the community.

"We work with parents, we work with kids, we also work with the Durham public schools," she said. "They've been open to talk to us, and we're in the process to see how we can resolve some of these issues."

The Latino population among school-age North Carolinians has risen as dramatically as the percentage of Latinos overall in the state. Between 2000 and 2010, the overall Latino population in the state more than doubled, to over 800,000. Latinos make up about 12 percent of the state's child population, according to Action for Children North Carolina, which issued reports last year on immigrant children generally and Latinos specifically.

The reports found that children from Latino families face a number of unique challenges, ranging from language barriers to living in so-called "mixed status" families, in which the children may be citizens of the U.S. while the parents may be in the country illegally.

"They're definitely facing barriers to services," said Mandy Ableidinger, director of policy and budget analysis for Action for Children. "Often if they're in mixed-status families, it makes parents very unwilling to seek out services for their children, even if their children are American citizens."

Latino children are still performing significantly below state averages on reading and math tests, with just 17 percent of Latino 4th-graders achieving a rating of "proficient" or better on reading tests. Challenges include growing up in households where most adults speak only Spanish, and widespread economic woe: about 73 percent of Latino children live in low-income households, according to the group's research, compared to the state average of roughly 43 percent.

The reports say that about 84 percent of Latino children in North Carolina are citizens, and that about 78 percent are fluent in English.

"Mostly what we're talking about is American kids who aren't getting services," Ableidinger said.