Useless translations at Shoreline meetings drive out Spanish speakers

09/18/2014

Recent failures to provide adequate translation have prevented scores of Spanish-speaking parents from fully participating in Shoreline’s crucial budget meetings.

At a board meeting on Aug. 28, a translator never arrived. Less than two weeks later, at an ad hoc budget meeting on Sept. 8, an interpreter translated only a portion of the discussion, even after a family advocate confronted him. The interpreter was later seen sleeping, his head drooping onto his chest as he snored.

“We owe it to our families to provide translation at all of our board meetings and to provide translated materials,” Superintendent Tom Stubbs said at last Thursday’s meeting. “I want to tell you we let you down, and I apologize for that. I am personally embarrassed by what happened and want to tell you I’m committed to making sure that it never happens again.”

Family advocates have encouraged Spanish-speaking parents to attend meetings, reassuring parents that translation and childcare would be available and even driving some to meetings, said Lourdes Romo, the family advocate at West Marin School. But last Monday, an interpreter translated only certain comments. Spanish-speaking parents who turned out in large numbers had looks of confusion on their faces. Ms. Romo picked up a headset to listen. “Out of every 10 words, maybe one or two were being translated,” she said. “Nope, nothing going on,” another person said after listening.

Ms. Romo approached the man, and asked him to interpret everything being said. He replied that he couldn’t hear from the back, so she suggested he move to the front. When he continued to translate sporadically, Ms. Romo confronted him again. He said he just couldn’t hear. Parents soon heard his snoring. “They felt disrespected,” Ms. Romo said. “You’re telling us to come and participate, but we’re getting the message that you don’t care what we have to say.”

Over a third of Shoreline’s students are English language learners, and 54 percent are Hispanic. Since last spring, translators have been tardy or absent at several meetings, even though the district paid the Murietta-based company that employed the snoozing translator, Language People, $13,113 last school year, according to business manager Susan Skipp.

In April, board president Jane Healy said trustees would continue to discuss improvements to translation when technical difficulties angered some parents.But in August, when problems arose again and mother Carmen Esquivias stood up to say she felt disrespected, Ms. Healy pled ignorance. “We do arrange for translation at all the meetings, but the problem is that we don’t have backup people. I didn’t know that he wasn’t going to show up,” she said. “I do think the school board has made every effort to provide translators at almost every meeting, and I think that needs to be acknowledged.”

Perhaps some of the Spanish speakers might have agreed, but most didn’t understand. They left the meeting early, crossing off their names from the sign-in sheet.