In Y.A. v. New York City Dep’t of Educ., the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that a New York school district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) by failing to provide a translator for an Individual Education Program (“IEP”) meeting and also failing to provide notice of the parent’s procedural safeguards in Russian.

The plaintiff, who can communicate in English but converses predominantly in Russian, argued that the school district violated IDEA by failing to provide a Russian translator at her daughter’s IEP meeting and also neglecting to provide notice of her procedural safeguards in Russian.  The school district, conversely, argued that it did not have an obligation to translate the meeting or the procedural safeguards into Russian because the plaintiff demonstrated her ability to communicate in English.

Ultimately, the court rejected the school district’s arguments for several reasons.  In regards to the failure to provide an interpreter, the court emphasized that although the plaintiff could communicate in English, it was evident that she had difficulty doing so and that English was not her preferred language.  Perhaps equally important, the court highlighted that the plaintiff testified that she had requested an interpreter for the IEP meeting but was nevertheless denied.  The court concluded that the school district’s failure to recognize her obvious difficulties communicating in English, coupled with her request for an interpreter, was sufficient evidence to hold that failing to provide an interpreter was a violation of IDEA.

With respect to the failure to provide procedural safeguards in Russian, the court reiterated that the plaintiff’s attempt to communicate in English, as opposed to Russian, did not eliminate the school district’s responsibility to translate the procedural safeguards into the plaintiff’s predominant language.  Specifically, the court stated, “IDEA does not dispense with its notice requirement when a parent appears to know some English.”  Thus, the mere fact that the plaintiff demonstrated her ability to communicate in English during the IEP meeting did not mean that she waived her right to receive notices in Russian.  For these reasons, the court ordered that the District reevaluate the student and develop a new IEP within 10 days of receiving the evaluation results.

While this case is not binding in Illinois, the key takeaway is that school districts may have an obligation to provide translation services to parents even when a parent demonstrates an ability to communicate in English.  Thus, to ensure compliance with IDEA, school districts should adhere to the following practices.  First, school districts should develop and implement a process for determining the language needs of parents.  The most common method for acquiring this information is a home language survey, which is designed to assess whether parents need oral and/or written communication in a language other than English.  Establishing such a system will help eliminate any uncertainty or confusion as to whether or not the school district is obligated to provide translation services.  Second, in situations where a parent specifically requests that a translator be present at an IEP meeting or that the IEP and other IEP-related documents be translated, it is best practice to grant the parent’s request.