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Litigation Involving Schools and
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3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Holds School District
Likely Violated Student Refugees’ Rights Under
the EEOA.

Legal Translation Services in Lawsuits Against School Districts

Legal translation services for cases involving lawsuits against school districts for violations of laws prohibiting national origin discrimination often come up. In addition to various state law protections, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (“EEOA”) is a federal law which prohibits discrimination against students, faculty, and staff on account of individuals’ national origin.

The EEOA also protects students with language barriers and requires school to take action to help students overcome existing obstacles to students’ participation in their education as a result of their language differences.

In Issa, et al. v. The School District of Lancaster, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the EEOA in the context of a motion for a preliminary injunction filed by student refugees against their school district. In their motion, the students asked the court to compel the school district to allow them to attend a different school within the district that was more accommodating to foreign language speaking students.

Refugee Students Spoke Somali, Hakha Chin, Swahili and Fur

In Issa, the plaintiffs and their families fled violence and persecution in their native countries and spoke little to no English when they arrived in the United States. The plaintiffs each experienced traumatic circumstances in their home countries which resulted in them fleeing to the United States.

For example, one of the plaintiffs fled from the reign of President Omar al-Bashir when she was 5 years old and lived in refugee camps in Chad until she was 17. Her native language was Fur and although she could also speak Arabic, she could not speak, write, or understand English when she arrived in the United States.

Another plaintiff, born in Somalia, fled to Egypt when he was 12 years old after militants killed his father. His native language was Somali, and he could only speak a few words of English when he arrived in the United States.

Another set of plaintiffs were siblings who fled Burma after their father was forced into labor. They spoke Hakha Chin and did not speak or understand English.

Finally, two of the plaintiffs were brothers who fled terrible living conditions in refugee camps in Tanzania and Mozambique. Their native language was Swahili and they only attended school through the eighth or ninth grade. They arrived in the United States being able to speak only a few words in English.

Refugee Students Assigned to “Accelerated” School Instead of International School.

Because all of the plaintiffs were over the age of 17 (and would only be eligible to attend public schools until they were 21), the plaintiffs were assigned to a special school within the district with an accelerated curriculum in order for them to be able to earn their diploma before they “aged out” of the system. There were no language accommodations at this school, which served “at risk students” and students like plaintiffs who were “older” for their grade and at risk of not graduating public high school.

The plaintiffs subsequently filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal court alleging violations of the EEOA, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, and violations of the Pennsylvania Public School Code.

The plaintiffs argued that they should be allowed to attend the school district’s international school, which was specifically designed to teach students who spoke little to no English and provided students with two English classes per day along with an introduction into American values and beliefs.

After filing their complaint, the plaintiffs filed motion for a preliminary injunction, and the court held a five day evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, the plaintiffs testified through interpreters that they understood very little of what their teachers and classmates were saying. The plaintiffs alleged that there were “never” interpreters there to assist them.

However, despite these difficulties, the plaintiffs still somehow earned credits and advanced to the next grade level. Following the hearing, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction on the grounds that it was likely that the school district had violated the EEOA. The school district in turn filed an appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Plaintiffs Must Satisfy Four Elements to Pursue EEOA Violation.

The 3rd Circuit began its analysis of the case by considering Section 1703(f) of the EEOA, which states that “no State shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, by…the failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.” Interpreting this provision, the court held that an individual alleging a violation of 1703(f) must satisfy the following 4 elements:

1) the defendant must be an educational agency;

2) the plaintiff must face language barriers impeding her equal participation in the defendant’s instructional programs;

3) the defendant must have failed to take appropriate action to overcome those language barriers, and

4) the plaintiff must have been denied educational opportunity on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.

The court held that the plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of succeeding on all four of these requirements. The court pointed to the students’ testimony that they were unable to understand their classmates and teachers.

First, the court found that it was not disputed that the school district qualified as an ‘educational agency” under the EEOA.

Second, the court found that there was no genuine dispute that the plaintiffs possessed formidable language barriers.

Third, the court held that the plaintiffs showed a likelihood of success when it came to demonstrating that the school district failed to take “appropriate action” in overcoming the students’ language barriers.

Finally, the court held that the plaintiffs showed that they were denied an equal educational opportunity on account of their national origin. Specifically, the court held that the plaintiffs’ language barriers and missed opportunities resulted from their national origin.

Based on the reasons listed above, the court found that the plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their EEOA claim and also demonstrated that they were likely to suffer irreparable harm without relief. Accordingly, the 3rd Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

The case is Issa v. The School District of Lancaster, Court No. 16-3528, decided on January 30, 2017 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

All Language Alliance, Inc. provides legal document translation services, certified document translations and deposition interpreters in Somali, Thai, Burmese, Swahili, Spanish, Arabic, Bosnian, Hmong, and other foreign languages for litigation involving schools and universities.

**This legal translations blog article should not be construed as legal advice. You should always consult an attorney regarding your specific legal needs.

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