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Interpretation services during school board meetings depend on the district and its unique community

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Paso Robles community activist Yessenia Echevarria founded Paso People's Action and Mujeres de Acción (Women of Action) as a way to inform and support the Latino and Spanish-speaking residents in the city.

She worked with the city to get the word out about COVID-19 safety and used social media to spread the news about a high school ethnic studies course proposed by the Paso Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee. Echevarria said she's constantly in contact with the community to identify and address their needs through local partnerships.

A lot of her recent work has focused on rallying Latino and Spanish speakers to participate in school board meetings by speaking about their experiences during public comment in a language that they're comfortable with.

"For us native Spanish speakers, our duality is our power," she said.

Spanish-speaking residents often don't speak up at public meetings because they don't feel confident in these institutions, Echevarria said. Typically, she said, community members feel that their comments aren't taken into consideration. Although Spanish speakers are sometimes discouraged from making public comments in Spanish, public meeting translation services don't always work.

During public comment at the March and April Paso Robles Joint Unified School District board meetings about the ethnic studies course proposal, board member Chris Arend interrupted several public commenters who spoke in Spanish.

"The rule is when you address the board since you're fluent in English, you do not need help, you can address the board in English, and it will be simultaneously translated. You do not address the board in Spanish, which none of us understand," Arend said right before a public commenter made their statement at the March 23 board meeting.

California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) found that 35 percent of all students enrolled in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District come from homes where Spanish is the primary language. Although the district does provide translation services at its meetings, the interpretation from English to Spanish and Spanish to English isn't always clear.

At the April 13 school board meeting, San Luis Obispo Democratic Party Chair Rita Casaverde said she wanted to make her comment in Spanish.

"I speak more than two languages, and I'm multicultural. Today, I speak in Spanish, not because I want to make you feel uncomfortable. I speak in Spanish because I can. It's the language that I want to speak in today," Casaverde said in Spanish.

The interpreter asked Casaverde to repeat those sentences three times and couldn't translate Casaverde's comments into English for the board.

"This is not working with the translation. And I hate to say it, my old traditional rule is if you can speak to us in English, speak to us in English. We are glad to provide translation services for people who need them, but not for people that speak English and can communicate with us perfectly. Frankly, I'm getting tired of us horsing around with this every week," Arend said.

Casaverde was ultimately allowed to make her comments in both Spanish and English.

"The precedent that this board is setting is horrible," she said. "I would also like this board to hire services of translation that can actually help people get their message across. ... Just right now we have proof that this board is not ready to provide translation services."

School districts throughout California are required to provide a means of communication for parents whose first language isn't English. However, there aren't strict guidelines for how to provide those resources.

Paso People's Action and Mujeres de Acción recently hosted a virtual Know Your Rights learning forum with CRLA—in English and Spanish—to help the community understand how school districts could meet their needs. During the forum, CRLA Director of Litigation Cynthia Rice said that school districts don't have a bright line to follow in terms of providing interpretation services.

"Essentially, school boards and public agencies of all types who hold public hearings have the authority to implement procedures to facilitate the efficient running of a meeting. I do think, however, we have been successful in arguing that when those procedures limit a speaker to three minutes when there is not a simultaneous interpretation, that is not provided to that board or agency, and that would be a violation," Rice said.

In other words, when translation is needed to interpret a speaker's comments, more time should be allotted to the speaker so the interpreter can translate the speaker's comments.

Deborah Escobedo, a senior attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco, said she believes the California Department of Education has a very loose standard with respect to translators. Escobedo said translators and interpreters hired by districts don't need to be certified. Although training is required, there isn't a training standard.

School districts create their own interpreter policies to meet the needs of the communities they serve. For instance, Coast Unified School District, which serves students in Cambria and Cayucos asks that requests for interpreters be made three days in advance of a school board meeting.

Coast Unified's administrative assistant to the superintendent, Bonnie Duston, said a non-English speaker may bring their own interpreter to the meeting and the interpreter (personal or district-provided) is given extra time to translate.

"Most parents bring their own interpreter, but we have several district employees assigned to provide translation if requested for a board meeting. In addition, each of our school sites have a bilingual clerk [Spanish] that is available for translation services during school hours," Duston said.

Santa Maria-Bonita School District Public Information Officer Maggie White said there's what's required of a school district, "and then there's common sense and how you want the families of your students to feel at your schools, how you value their feedback, regardless of how it's provided, and how you want to make them comfortable and connected because of all of those things."

Ultimately, she said, that's how the district supports student education.

Santa Maria-Bonita provides interpretation services to its students and their guardians whose primary languages are English, Spanish, and Mixteco.

White said the district's interpretation services are "simpler" than most school districts in the state that provide services in Vietnamese, Hindi, Hmong, or Farsi. Districts, she said, often have to provide interpretation for more than just conversational situations. The interpreter also needs to understand educational terminology—chemistry terms, for an example.

Because Mixteco isn't a written language, Santa Maria-Bonita created videos where Mixteco speakers talk about certain notices that would have otherwise been mailed or sent home with a student.

"We can't tell if we're meeting all of those needs, either academic or even socio-emotional, without hearing from the families. Families are such an important stronghold for our students," she said.

Santa Maria-Bonita School District is fortunate, White said, to have many community members and board members who are bilingual or trilingual (English, Spanish, and Mixteco) and can communicate with the district's families.

"It's all about creating that sense of community, and it's all for supporting students. That's what we're here for, if a school district is not here to help students be the best they can be and provide them with as many opportunities as possible then what are we doing here?" White said. "And that includes embracing whatever might be unusual or different about their families." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Karen Garcia at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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