ACLU sues Providence for English learner records

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Two groups have filed suit against the Providence Public Schools for refusing to release records related to a federal probe of the city’s English language learner program.

The suit stems from an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request filed by Veronika Kot of Rhode Island Legal Services, who requested documents after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found the school department violated federal law when it comes to English language learners.

“It’s somewhat shocking that the city is hiding these documents,” Rhode Island ACLU executive director Steven Brown said.

The DOJ reached a settlement with the city last year, writing that the school department violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 by failing to provide adequate English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction.

Rhode Island Legal Services requested the full copy of the notice the DOJ sent to the city with its findings, but the request was denied. On appeal, City Solicitor Jeff Dana once again denied to release the documents.

The city law department cited exemptions to APRA including attorney-client privilege, draft notes, and investigatory records other than “final actions taken.”

Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit in response, arguing that the DOJ’s findings do qualify as “final actions taken” and are public record.

“The city is refusing to turn over the factual findings that the Department of Justice made, and we think it’s absolutely critical, not just for us but for members of the public, to know exactly what it was the Department of Justice found,” Brown said.

Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for the city, declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The DOJ settlement did shed some light on the 12 violations it found, including that the district placed English Learner (EL) students in schools that didn’t have EL services. The DOJ also said the district “failed to staff its EL programs with enough qualified teachers.”

The city agreed to remedial steps in the settlement, but did not admit to any violations.

In June, Johns Hopkins University released a report on the Providence Public Schools that included concerns from parents and teachers that the schools were not properly serving English learners.

The report quoted one teacher as saying, “There has been no improvement for ELL since the DOJ report.”

At a recent news conference held by Mayor Jorge Elorza, Hope High School ESL teacher Betsy Taylor made an emotional plea for better conditions, including resources for ESL.

“Our hands are tied when we get here,” Taylor said. “We’re not given the resources to do what we know is best for our students.”

State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who has extensive experience with English learners, is planning to take control of the Providence schools later this fall.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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