U.S. Office of Civil Rights To Investigate Lakewood Schools’ Discrimination of Latino Student with Disabilities

NJ Education Report has received, through an anonymous source, a formal complaint against the Lakewood Public Schools (LPS). The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and is dated September 23, 2022.

In the letter the complainant accuses the district of a variety of civil rights offenses towards a student classified as eligible for special education services who, like 90% of Lakewood’s public school students, speaks Spanish, as do his parents. In short, while OCR dismissed a few of the complaints, it deemed credible the following incidences of discrimination, which will now be investigated::

  • LPS discriminated against the student based on race and disability by failing to evaluate the student in his native language.
  • LPS discriminated against the student by failing to include his parents in IEP meetings.
  • LPS discriminated against the student by failing to give parents translations of IEP documents in their native language.
  • LPS discriminated against the student by removing him from school based on behavior stemming from his disability. (Districts are required to do Functional Behavior Assessments for students with disabilities before taking any action and are not allowed to discipline them if the behavior is a result of their disability.)
  • LPS discriminated against the student by threatening his parents with litigation if they continued to advocate for their son.
  • LPS discriminated against the student by copying legal counsel on emails to the parents.
  • LPS discriminated against the student by sending staff members to the student’s home in an effort to coerce the parents to sign documents.
  • LPS discriminated against the student by failing to reply promptly to letters from the parents.

This doesn’t mean OCR will find the district at fault; it merely means it will investigate the complaints. However, the timing of the complaint is auspicious and precedes a disclosure that LPS is the only district in South Jersey that is still conducting school board meetings remotely. This habit has disenfranchised many Latino parents in the community: the Asbury Park Press reports “many Lakewood parents don’t have internet access” and “the remote meetings have been a barrier to their participation and ability to connect with each other.”

For the last school board meeting, Alejandra Morales, head of the local advocacy group Voz Latina, had organized a meeting for Latino parents to watch the meeting on a large-screen TV that could link to the internet. But that didn’t work because the administration didn’t even bother posting a Zoom link for community participation. “This is the very first time that the board doesn’t upload the Zoom link for the public to participate,” said Andrew Meehan, a community leader from Bergen County who has helped Lakewood residents with housing and school board issues.

That didn’t stop the parents from discussing their primary concern: a district culture of bullying Latino students. After passing the microphone around, reports the Press, “they discussed solutions to the bullying culture that they said has been increasing among middle and high school students. They agreed to go to the school principal’s offices to ask that the district to pay more attention to bullying, contemplated their legal options, and stressed the need to increase communication with their kids to identify risks.”

District attorney Michael Inzelbuch later called Morales to apologize for the lack of a Zoom link. That won’t help the parents who don’t have internet access, of course, but Morales responded graciously and described to Inzelbuch a district culture that discriminates against Latino students—whether or not they have a disability.

Staff Writer

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