Cherry Creek School District settles with Department of Justice over complaints about language barriers for parents and guardians

Jenny Brundin/CPR New
Cherry Creek School buses.

The Cherry Creek School District on Thursday agreed to settle with the Department of Justice over claims that the district failed to properly communicate with parents and guardians who have limited proficiency in English or don’t speak English at all.

The agreement ends the three-year investigation into allegations that the district failed to provide adequate translation services or communication for parents and guardians who speak a language other than English.

According to complaints filed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, the district didn’t provide language services to parents and guardians when their kids were enrolled, and it didn’t provide translation or interpreters for disciplinary proceedings like expulsion meetings or for access to instructional programs.

Neither the district nor the Department of Justice specified who complained about the language barriers. The settlement said the DOJ “received multiple complaints over the past three years alleging that the Cherry Creek School District No. 5 failed to take appropriate action to address language barriers of families with limited English proficiency.”

The district signed on to the agreement to significantly improve its language services for parents and guardians, which was not an admission from the district of any wrongdoing or violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.

“We worked collaboratively with the Department of Justice to strengthen our translations systems to ensure we are meeting the needs of our families with limited English proficiency,” said district spokesperson Abbe Smith in a statement. “Equity is a core value of the Cherry Creek School District and it is a priority for the district to find ways to continuously improve how we serve families who speak multiple languages.”

One of the largest school districts in the state, Cherry Creek serves about 53,000 students across metro Denver and more than 150 languages are spoken by parents and guardians of students enrolled there.

“Parents with limited English proficiency face barriers to understanding how public schools work,” Cole Finegan, U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado, said in a statement released by the DOJ. “This agreement is intended to ensure that the Cherry Creek School District implements policies and practices to enable all parents in the district to participate meaningfully in their children’s education. We urge all school districts in Colorado to review their practices to ensure that they are complying with their obligations to provide language assistance services to parents with limited English proficiency.”

The district has agreed to offer language services —  in-person interpretation, remote video or phone interpretation, translation, direct “in language” or monolingual communication, or sight translation —  in several critical areas:

  • Enrollment forms and procedures
  • Disciplinary meetings and proceedings
  • Any communication that contains essential school information. 

The deal, which lasts for three years, also includes a mandate to identify parents and guardians with limited English proficiency and make sure they know that translation and interpretation services are available.

The district will also be required to report its efforts to meet the conditions of the deal, including listing all parents and guardians with limited English proficiency and what language services they were offered and any potential future complaints about language barriers in the district.

For school-wide communications, phone messages and other notices, the district has agreed to release them in what the DOJ called “major languages” — any languages other than English spoken by more than 100 of the district’s parents and guardians who have limited use of English. The deal also makes allowances for “low-incident languages” for the district — giving the district three business days to provide an appropriate translation or interpreter.

The district is nearly 22 percent Hispanic, 11.6 percent African American, and 9 percent Asian, according to the CCSD website.

The district is not allowed to use friends, students or internet services like Google Translate to communicate essential information to parents and guardians.