Back to All Commentary

How Buffalo Schools are Failing Immigrant Students

The City's public schools are not providing translated materials to English Language Learners or their parents.

Blurs of students walking in a school hallway

The thousands of refugees that Buffalo welcomes each year are a critical reason for our city’s recent economic and population growth.

But with this fortune comes many responsibilities, particularly on the part of the city’s school district to educate refugee — and other immigrant — children. Sadly, Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) has not come close to meeting this challenge.

Aboubakar is an eighth-grade student whom I represented in his appeal of his suspension. (His name has been changed in this piece to protect his privacy.) Aboubakar is fluent in English, but his mother, a Ugandan refugee, has limited English proficiency (“LEP”). When Aboubakar was suspended, the Code of Conduct he was alleged to have violated was not available in Swahili or French, the main languages spoken in Uganda. Similarly, the information from the school informing his parents of their rights was in English only.

The district failed to provide Abubakar’s mother with an interpreter at the hearing where the decision to suspend him was made. Instead, Aboubakar was forced to interpret for his mother. The charges against him were upheld, and he was excluded from school for nearly six weeks —all based on non-violent allegations.

Aboubakar’s family did not understand the charges or what had transpired at the hearing, nor did they know that Aboubakar was entitled to two hours of daily tutoring during his suspension. They also were unaware that Aboubakar had been struggling academically in school — all notices and report cards sent home were in English only.

With help from my office, Aboubakar was found eligible for special education services based on his noted difficulties with focus and attention. But the task of explaining his eligibility for these services, as well as the general concept of special education, fell to me. The district had not translated any of the notices or evaluation reports or provided notice of their contents via an interpreter; and it had not translated its proposed Individualized Education Plan for Aboubakar.

Then there’s Mohammed – whose name has also been changed – a fifth-grade student whom I represented at his recent suspension hearing. Mohammed, who was born in the United States and has been educated in Buffalo schools his entire life, is fluent in English. His father, an Iraqi immigrant, is LEP.

Parents simply cannot become actively involved in their children’s educations if the school district won’t give them the tools to do so, even when they’re required to by law.

As with Aboubakar, Mohammed’s notices were written only in English. As a result, Mohammed’s father was unaware of his right to conference with the school principal before the suspension began. Instead, Mohammed missed nearly an entire month of school before he was even granted his right to a hearing. Under New York law, that hearing was supposed to happen within five school days.

The school claimed he had “caused a major disruption to the order of the day by making racial slurs with verbal and physical threats that caused physical altercations.” At the hearing, we learned that the only evidence the school had against Mohammed was that he called his teacher “an old grandma.”  Fortunately, I was able to get the absurd charges dismissed, and Mohammed was allowed back into school. But he cannot get back the month that he missed.

I have discussed these cases extensively with district leadership. I appealed Aboubakar’s suspension to the Superintendent, requesting an expungement of the suspension, as required under state law when families are not provided the process they are entitled to. The district refused.

When I reminded the district of its obligations under state and federal law to offer meaningful language access to students and families, I was told it doesn’t have the resources to do so. I received the same response when I raised the issue of translating Individualized Education Plans. And when I followed up to ensure that Mohammed’s suspension was removed from his student record, I found that it was not.

These failures result in significant frustration and alienate families from the district. Parents simply cannot become actively involved in their children’s educations if the school district won’t give them the tools to do so, even when they’re required to by law.

Given all this it’s not surprising that English Language Learners (ELL) and Multilingual Language Learners (MLL) in Buffalo struggle to achieve their potential. Graduation data on the most recent four-year cohort of students (exiting 2021) shows that 18 percent of ELL/MLL students drop out prior to graduation, compared to nine percent of non-ELL/MLL students. Data from the 2019-, 2018-, and 2017-exit cohorts (the most recent years in which students were not given COVID exemptions from Regents Exam requirements) are even worse.

The district must do better. Its own data show the population of ELL/MLL students has doubled in the past decade. During the 2021-2022 School Year, BPS was home to some 5,000 ELL/MLL students (and many more English-proficient students with LEP parents). That number is likely to grow as Buffalo continues to welcome refugees and immigrants.

The top seven languages spoken by students are Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Karen, Swahili, Somali, and Burmese. Under state regulations, the district should have bilingual programming in all seven languages. Instead, BPS operates only Spanish-English bilingual programs, and only 20 percent of ELL/MLL students are enrolled in such a program.

The district also must ensure that ELL/MLL students suspected of having disabilities receive valid and reliable results from evaluations. From my review, the district has only two Spanish and one Arabic bilingual school psychologists and otherwise relies on interpreters — many untrained in education and psychology — to interpret for students. Meanwhile, bilingual students wait months longer than non-ELL/MLL students for evaluations.

Buffalo Public Schools is in a unique moment. Thanks to an unprecedented injection of nearly $300 million in fiscal aid, it has the resources to tackle these issues. The district should use some of this money to hire interpreters and bilingual staff, translate important documents, and offer bilingual classes for students.

Taking these steps won’t just bring BPS into compliance with the laws protecting ELL/MLL students. It will make our school system and our city stronger.

If you or someone you know has experienced difficulties with language access in New York public schools, email or call 212-607-3300.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union