Latino students in Jefferson Parish public schools in Louisiana have been harassed by employees about their citizenship, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which also says student parents who speak little English have not been provided translators.

Officials at West Jefferson High School neither took action against a teacher who called a student a "wetback" during class nor moved the boy to another class, according to information on its website. It said the boy, now a rising sophomore at Cox High School, transferred from West Jefferson because of widespread hostility.

It is simply irrelevant whether a student seeking enrollment in a public school system is a U.S. citizen.

- Jennifer Coco, Staff Attorney Equal Rights Center

School staffers often laughed or groaned before hanging up on people who called speaking Spanish as part of a four-week study of Spanish-language services by the Equal Rights Center in Washington, D.C., staff attorney Jennifer Coco said Wednesday.

The Jefferson Parish Public School System did not respond to specific allegations in an emailed three-paragraph statement in English and Spanish.

"We are disappointed that the Southern Poverty Law Center has chosen to file a complaint ... For the past two years, serving English Language Learners has been a priority for the Jefferson Parish Public School System. Our data supports academic gains among 3rd-8th-grade Limited English Proficient students over a four-year period," it said.

Children from 50 countries and speaking 34 languages attend Jefferson Parish schools, it said, and the system is committed to helping all parents who speak little English, whatever language they speak.

It said it has a Spanish-language version of its policy and procedures manual. "In addition, Spanish-speaking personnel are available for families when needed," it said.

Coco said documents filed for No Child Left Behind show that the district has only two Spanish-language liaisons even though about 7,000 students — 17 percent of last year's enrollment — are Latino. Nearly half of those students, or 8 percent of the total student body, have limited English, according to the law center.

The SPLC said the complaint filed Wednesday for 16 students and their families also alleged that a woman whose three children are in the Jefferson Parish Public School System has given up attending parent-teacher conferences or school open houses "because she is unable to receive or convey any meaningful information about her children's educational programs."

The complaint, which identified students and parents only by initials, was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

"The school system has an open policy of demanding Social Security numbers during enrollment and before graduation" even though courts have repeatedly found such policies illegal, she said.

"It is simply irrelevant whether a student seeking enrollment in a public school system is a U.S. citizen," she said.

Coco said the law center hopes to work out problems through negotiations rather than going to court.

Asked whether the SPLC had tried to negotiate with the school system before filing the complaint, she said the parents involved all had asked school officials for help and made their needs and wishes clear. One mother had asked the school district several times for a Spanish-language help line, and was turned down, she said.

Parents who speak little English need and have a right to information they can understand about school discipline, special education services, major school events, parent-teacher conferences, and even their eligibility for interpreters and translated materials, the law center said.

"Jefferson Parish public schools must end these discriminatory practices and recognize that these students have the same rights as English-speaking families," Coco said. "This is about ensuring every student in the district has an opportunity to succeed and that all parents have a meaningful opportunity to participate in their child's education."

Federal laws including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 require schools that get federal money to provide parents information in a language they understand, and not limit enrollment or graduation to citizens or legal immigrants, the law center said.

Reported and written by the Associated Press.

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