Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Durham Public Schools Reach Out to Latinos in Wake of Civil Rights Complaint

Almost a year ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights accusing the Durham Public Schools in North Carolina of discrimination against Latino and English language learner students and their parents.

The charges made by the Montgomery, Alabama, based civil rights organization were severe. In one example given, a high school teacher allegedly pushed a Hispanic student against the wall and told the student to “go back to your own country.” Another teacher was accused of using anti-Hispanic slurs. One district official was accused of asking a student for a passport and immigrant visa when the family tried to enroll.

The complaint also pointed to a larger problem with a lack of communication between the district and many Latino families: The district had only three Spanish interpreters, while more than 5,300 students spoke Spanish at home.

But now, The News & Observer reports that educators and community members are coming together to discuss how to better serve the district’s roughly 6,000 Hispanic students. A new Latino Parent Council helped arrange an event where teachers, principals and members of the Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) group met to discuss how the district is serving its Hispanic students. The group also examined the need for more bilingual counselors, teachers and office staff.

“It’s recognizing that any kind of change really requires the input from the people who are doing the work with the kids,” said Durham CAN organizer Ivan Parra.

Some change is evident from the district’s web site, which promotes a partnership with the LaMega Radio Station for a Spanish-language monthly talk show where district officials will share information with Hispanic families. Families are welcome to call in with questions. There’s also a Spanish-language information section on the district’s web site home page.

Last November, the district reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to make several changes:

  • Make the anti-discrimination policy stronger;
  • Make sure that policies don’t discourage students who are undocumented immigrants from enrolling and that students are not asked about immigration status;
  • Distribute documents such as registration forms, field trip permission forms and requests for parent conferences (and letters to parents);
  • Develop a plan to ensure effective communication with limited-English parents;
  • Make interpreters available to help parents (a district spokesperson now says there are eight full-time interpreters).

Have you seen similar tensions or problems arise in your own communities? Here are the full changes that the district agreed to make.