Are Parents Being Denied Translations In Public Schools Illegally?


Last Updated on August 9, 2023 by Michelle Ball

By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995

California is a diverse state, with many different cultures, nationalities and languages.  But what if parents do not speak English? How are they to read a report card or understand what is happening in an expulsion hearing?

There are many triggers which mandate translations be provided by public schools, including based on the student population, whether a student is a non-English speaker, or based on the parents’ status as non-English speakers.

translated documents at school
Schools must provide translated documents to certain students when over 15% of students speak a primary language other than English

When Do School Documents Have to Be Translated?

One of the ways to trigger a school’s duty to provide translated documents, is simply based on a student’s language and the population of the school they attend.

Per Education Code section 48985 documents must be translated for parents of non-English speaking students if fifteen percent (15%) of students attending the school speak that same language:

(a) If 15 percent or more of the pupils enrolled in a public school that provides instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, speak a single primary language other than English, as determined from the census data… the preceding year, all notices, reports, statements, or records sent to the parent or guardian of any such pupil by the school or school district shall, in addition to being written in English, be written in the primary language, and may be responded to either in English or the primary language.

So, if a student speaks a language that fifteen percent of the students in the school also speak (e.g. Spanish, French, Tagalog, etc.) student documents must be provided in both English and that language to the student’s family.

Where Can Parents Check on the Fifteen Percent Threshhold?

If a parent of a non-English speaking student wants to find out if fifteen percent of the students in the same school also speak the student’s language, thus triggering the translated documents mandate, they can check at this link.

Non-English speaking family in store
Parents should have meaningful access to student education despite language barriers

What About the Parents’ Primary Language?

But, what about students who speak English, but their parents don’t? What are the parents’ rights? A lot.

Limited English Proficient (LEP) parents are entitled to meaningful access to their child’s education. Failure to provide parents with translated documents which are provided to English speaking parents can constitute discrimination based on national origin or race under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education states:

Must my child’s school provide information to me in a language I can understand?
Yes. Schools must communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a
language they can understand about any program, service, or activity that is called to the
attention of parents who are proficient in English.

This is similarly reflected in California Code of Regulations, Title 5, section 11316 and Education Code section 51101.1, mandating parents who are non-English speakers be provided translated documents.

Is Every Parent Entitled to Translations?

Is every parent who speaks a different language entitled to translations? Federal law discusses that key documents sent to English speakers should be translated and sent to non-English speakers. However, schools may attempt to raise cost considerations to argue against provision of some documents or to some parents.

If it would cost a prohibitive amount to translate everything into Romanian for a single person, can a school refuse to translate? It may depend on the facts of the unique situation. I would argue every parent should have translations, but ultimately, it could depend on various factors, such as the size of the school district, their budget, the costs to translate, etc.

The California Department of Education (CDE) has developed a document bank (“Clearinghouse for Multilingual Documents“) for school districts to share essential documents and reduce costs.

Limited English Proficient parents in schools
Limited English Proficient parents must be provided with translated documents and maybe even a translator

Important Documents Should Be Translated

Parents are often unaware they should be receiving translated documents, but it is vital they do. Otherwise, parents may not understand important documents, such as:

  • suspension notices
  • report cards
  • IEP plans
  • special education notices
  • assessment notices
  • testing notices
  • student handbooks
  • classroom notices
  • annual legal notices
  • other notices

It is critical that non-English speaking parents receive these in English and their native language.

Lack of Translations Can Hinder Parent Participation

The unfortunate result of not having translated documents, is that parents of California students may not be able to meaningfully participate in their children’s education. All parents should be active and knowledgeable participants in their children’s education and student activities.

If parents do not receive translated documents, they may be pushed aside and marginalized. This can be discriminatory. It is critical that no parents are left out of the education system, whatever language they speak.

All Californians should be concerned about ensuring marginalized populations are not excluded from education as this impacts the future of our state and the futures of all people living here.

Frequent Breaches Can Occur to Non-English Speaking Parents

I have seen non-English speaking parents’ rights breached via public school failures to provide translated documents. Limited English Proficient parents may find themselves in a critical student situation, such as a school expulsion, which they cannot fully understand due to language barriers.

If this occurs, these denials can present bases for overturning a decision where parents could not meaningfully participate due to the denial of translated documents.

Language translation school
Parents should not have to translate ortant student documents themselves

What Parents Can Do to Get Translated Documents

If a non-English speaking parent finds they are not getting documents in their language, but should be, they should notify the student’s school immediately.

They can also file a complaint with the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.

If you are a non-English speaker or know someone who is not an English speaker, be sure they know their rights to translated educational documents.  We all benefit if parents are engaged in student education.

Parent and student lawyer Michelle Ball can help parents with failures by schools to provide translated documents or proper translators when students or parents don’t speak English. As an attorney in Sacramento California, Michelle can assist in Fair Oaks, Carmichael, Elk Grove, Stockton, Fresno, Merced, Monterey, Ceres, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many other locations.

Originally published July 13, 2017