Parents with Our Voice Nuestra Voz pictured in July 2020 at a protest against NOLA Public Schools' COVID reopening plans. The group is now pushing the school district to enhance protections meant to stop charter school administrators retaliating against parents for advocating for their kids. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

On Wednesday morning, Mavet Beaumont took her 13-year-old daughter to her charter school’s orientation for the new school year. At the school, there was a row of tents set up with typical new school year tasks — a tent for school ID pictures, one for food service sign-ups and another for uniform pick-up and ordering. But Beaumont, who speaks Spanish, ran into a problem: No one was available to translate for her.

“At 11 o’clock this morning there was a conference at my daughter’s school and I demanded my rights,” Beaumont said through a translator in a Wednesday afternoon interview. (Beaumont asked that The Lens not publish her daughter’s name or identify the New Orleans school she attends.) 

“At the first tent they would just speak with my daughter,” who speaks English, Beaumont said. “And since I don’t speak the language it was like I didn’t even exist.”

At another tent, school staff continued to communicate with Beaumont through her daughter, she said. They wanted to know if she had paid for her daughter’s uniform. She attempted to ask school staff where she should pay but they kept speaking to her daughter.

“I said, ‘This can’t be happening — you have to have someone to translate,’” she said. 

Beaumont said she insisted on a translator, but was told the school’s two interpreters were busy. As her frustrations grew, she continued to demand one, which she said included a staff member calling her “a bad person.”

After reaching out to an educator friend, school leaders eventually got a translator on the phone, a less-than-ideal set up, she said. 

It’s not the first time Beaumont, who is a member of community advocacy group Our Voice Nuestra Voz, has encountered this problem. She said she ran into hurdles when requesting English language services for her older daughter after noticing her English class grade improved, despite still struggling with the language.

She said the school later said they didn’t know her daughter had been eligible for the services. 

In past instances, she said, she’s immediately gotten help if she mentions Our Voice Nuestra Voz. Beaumont knows the group gets results. That’s one reason she’s a member. 

“Why do I have to mention the organization to get an answer?” Beaumont asked.

Our Voice Nuestra Voz Program Director Taylor Castillo worries that other parents — parents without educator friends or connections to parent advocacy groups — are too scared to advocate for themselves and their children, or may not know how.

“We have a number of stories of retaliation, things like a parent going to the school with a concern, her email being routinely ignored,” Castillo said. “She’s following up, becomes the parent that is ‘too vocal’ and retaliation starts to get taken out on her child. He starts to get written up for behaviors that were never issues before.”

Fear of retaliation can be particularly acute for families who need additional services, like translation services, one of the problems that Our Voice Nuestra Voice hopes to solve with a new anti-retaliation policy proposal that will soon be considered by the Orleans Parish School Board.  The group hopes the policy will guarantee parents can bring their concerns and voice their needs to school officials without fear.

“Those are really the main things, it’s protecting parents rights to engage with schools in the various ways they can engage with schools, as well as raise concerns and advocate for their children,” Castillo said. 

New protections

Our Voice Nuestra Voz first requested that anti-retaliation protections be written into NOLA Public Schools district policy at a February Orleans Parish School Board meeting. 

Parents at the meeting described being ignored or seeing their children being written up more often for minor or “frivolous” disciplinary infractions after complaining or requesting services for their children. One parent said school administrators threatened to report her to immigration authorities after she asked for bus services for her kids. 

An expanded definition of retaliation was slated to be included in a charter contract revision that would have gone into effect in May. Had the district adopted the contract language, about 20 charters would have signed those new contracts effective July 1. But after pushback from schools, the district pulled the proposal.

Now OPSB members are seeking to enact the protections via board policy. Board member J.C. Romero introduced a notice of intent at last week’s board meeting, essentially introducing the policy. Its first reading is scheduled for later this month.

The proposed provisions include guaranteed access to school staff and protections from retaliation if staff or families participate in investigations against schools or school officials.

“I think it’s important for us as a district to be super intentional about outlining our belief that families have rights and should be able to engage meaningfully without feeling discouraged or intimidated or feeling like they didn’t have a voice,” Romero said in an interview this week.

“The policy that I’m going to be bringing forth to the committee is specifically outlining that schools should not intimidate, they should not threaten or coerce against or retaliate in any matter against a parent or guardian, student or even in an employee,” he said.

“I want our families to feel empowered to engage in our education system without feeling intimidated,” he said.

Romero said Our Voice Nuestra Voz deserves credit for the proposed policy gaining traction. The group had been working on the proposal behind the scenes well before the February meeting.

“We’ve spent a lot of this time sharing that with parents and talking with CMO leaders to get perspectives and get buy-in,” Castillo said. “We know for this policy to really work everyone needs to be on the same page.”

Romero and Castillo say charter management groups have generally been accepting or come around on the topic. 

“They all say parent engagement is something they want, they want to feel protected,” Castillo said. “And a lot of school leaders recognize that there is a lot of fear because of past retaliation. Even if it wasn’t at their school, if it was another school, it can create a culture of fear.”

Romero, a former charter network employee, said he understands the educators’ lens, but in his current position his main focus is to be a champion for families and the community.

“There has been push back from some — but my thing is at the end of the day I serve the people and the voices of parents, families and students,” Romero said. “What I say to the few who have pushed back or seem disengaged is ‘if you’re claiming you’re doing things right then there shouldn’t be pushback about this policy.’”

Ensuring access

This policy work is personal for Romero, who is Latino and was raised by a non-English speaking mother in New Orleans.

“English was not my first language. My mother still doesn’t speak English,” Romero said. “She was not ever able to meaningfully engage with my school process in ways that people who speak English would be proud to do so. I often had to navigate school on my own.”

Romero said language access and especially ensuring it’s not a burden, are two key elements of the policy, which also seeks to ensure parents’ rights.

“For me, it’s important for educators to take a step back and understand the implications of this for people who are afraid to even go to a school to ask a question because they’re going to be seen as bothersome,” he said. “That’s what my mother would say when I was a kid. … ‘If I go to your school it may turn into an uncomfortable experience that just agitates the staff.’”

It’s not simply about translation services either, Romero said, noting the complexity of the district’s decentralized system.

“You could have a translator all day but it’s important to have people who speak another language who are also trained on how the New Orleans school system operates,” he said. 
“At the end of the day, if you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing for our students to thrive and succeed in school and in the city then you should be 100 percent on board,” Romero said.

Beaumont, the woman who had trouble securing translation services at her daughter’s school, said that in spite of the difficulty she has experienced, she is hopeful that other parents will push their schools to meet their needs.

“We’re not on our own. I want the community to know they’re not on their own,” she said.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...