Imagine you’re not happy with your child’s teacher and you call for a meeting with the principal and the teacher in question. But there’s a problem: You don’t speak English. So the teacher translates. It’s a conflict of interest that's also against federal guidelines.

But that's exactly what happened to Aracely Jerez, a mother from the Dominican Republic with three children in Lawrence Public Schools.

“She is one of those people who translates whatever she wants, not what’s being said,” Jerez said of the teacher, speaking in Spanish. “I don’t speak English, but I’m not stupid.”

At other times, Jerez says the principal’s secretary has translated. And afterwards Jerez recalled the secretary expressing some unwanted opinions.

“We were in the hallway next to the school’s security checkpoint, and she said to me in this very normal tone of voice, ‘Why don’t you return to your country?’” Jerez said.

Parents can’t fully participate in their children’s education if they don’t know what’s going on. This could be one reason why Latino and immigrant students in the state lag behind in test scores and graduation rates.

The practice could also break federal law. The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating whether Lawrence public school officials are discriminating against some parents with children in special education because they don’t speak English well, according to their lawyer. And the state faces a federal lawsuit alleging it has allowed Holyoke to not translate for Puerto Rican and other parents there.

“When you hear that someone cannot speak the language well and you deny them that access, you are discriminating against them for their origin, just as much as you are discriminating against them for the color of their skin,” said Tere Ramos, a lawyer who represents Jerez and other parents in Lawrence.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination based on race, religion, sex, color and national origin. The Supreme Court has said that language is the closest proxy to national origin.

In Lawrence, the majority of students are Latino and speak Spanish as their first language. Lawrence officials say they’re taking steps to improve communication with non-English-speaking parents of special education students. They hired two full-time interpreters last winter, trained 18 staff members to interpret and contracted an outside agency to translate special education documents.

“I am yet to meet someone in a school district that has neglected to provide language access to parents out of malice,” Ramos said. “However, what I have found is that we have a lot of ignorance.”

Ultimately, Ramos blames state education officials. She pointed to state audits that show the state has found more than 100 schools and school districts that are inconsistently translating documents for parents who don’t speak English well.

“There hasn't ever been any kind of hard or swift response by the department that has made any of these districts change,” Ramos said. "And I think that's the biggest reason why things have not changed because the reality is that they have nothing to lose by not doing anything.”

Officials from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said they do take action. That includes directing districts to translate documents and provide interpreters for parent meetings.

“When we find that districts have not met their obligations to translate [Individual Education Plan] documents, we work with and continue to monitor the district until it’s in compliance,” department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis wrote in an email.

Ramos sued the state last year on behalf of parents in Holyoke Public Schools. The federal lawsuit argues that the commonwealth has “failed and continues to fail despite repeated investigations to hold Holyoke Public Schools accountable.” The education department declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.