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A Catholic school in Wichita, Kan., was sued by parents of Hispanic students because it mandated the speaking of English during school hours.
BY PAUL A. BARRAREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WICHITA, Kan. — Presidential
candidate Barack Obama was criticized recently for telling parents in Powder
Springs, Ga., “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English …
you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”
But the advice might have helped
ameliorate a recent diocesan school controversy that erupted into a federal
Parents of three Hispanic middle
school students at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Wichita, Kan., sued the school
and the Diocese of Wichita because the principal banned the use of Spanish on
campus. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Marten sided with the school in an
Aug. 15 decision, saying that the school policy did not violate any civil
rights laws. A diocesan spokesman explained the school’s position.
“Problems at the school arose in the
fall of 2007 when the students, whose first or primary language is English,
began speaking in Spanish to make derogatory comments about teachers, school
administrators and fellow students, and to separate themselves from other
students,” Fred Solis said.
Congregation of St. Joseph Sister
Margaret Nugent, the principal, ruled that English must be spoken at school at
all times. St. Anne’s student population is one-third Hispanic.
Bilingual education was curtailed in
California by 1998’s Proposition 227, and in Arizona and Massachusetts
subsequently, but the Wichita case did not hinge on those laws, according to
the school. It was a disciplinary issue.
Father Thomas Leland, pastor of St.
Anne, said that school unity is essential for the education and spiritual
formation of the school’s students.
“The unifying element in this case
was the English language, because it’s the common denominator among the
students, teachers and administration,” Father Leland said.
Sister Margaret referred all
questions on the case to the diocese, but she did say that the 2008-09 academic
year started well. She did not say if enrollment was affected.
Reporter Ron Sylvester, who covers
the courts for The Wichita Eagle newspaper, said that the
case proved to be “quite contentious” and generated enormous interest in the
community at large.
“People found it to be a very
emotional issue,” Sylvester said.
The same could be said for the
concept of bilingual education in general. Many think that teaching in two
languages is divisive and impedes foreign language speakers from assimilating
into American society. Professor Jill Kemper Mora of the School of Education at
San Diego State University is not one of them. Mora, winner of an excellence award for research from the California Association
for Bilingual Education, said that teaching in a student’s first language is
not divisive in a nation like America.
is a natural phenomenon in a multicultural society,” she said. “It is actually
a learning advantage and is important to bicultural affirmation and identity.”
the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where 70% of its 4.5 million Catholics are
Latino, a language controversy similar to the one just adjudicated in Kansas
has never occurred, according to the archdiocesan spokesman.
my 17 years with the archdiocese, we have not had such a problem, and we
celebrate Mass in 42 different languages,” said Tod Tamberg. “English is the
language of instruction in all our [Catholic] schools, but we find it important
to be flexible and accepting with regard to other languages.”
said that the Wichita school’s reaction to the Spanish comments by some
students sounded like “overkill” to him, and Mora of San Diego State agreed.
Leland did not agree with that assessment, although he did admit that the
decision and the lawsuit it precipitated were not good for St. Anne’s.
issue has been divisive and hurtful to our parish community, and in that
regard, there are no winners,” the pastor said.
have also been divided in the past decade on English-only laws. The Alaska
Supreme Court decreed in 2002 that a popular law requiring the use of English
when conducting public business violated the First Amendment’s right to free
speech, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a 2000 case
against a St. Louis factory that required English at work.
in March 2008, a federal court ruled that Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia had a
right to request the use of English when ordering. And this past May, an Iowa
district judge ruled that voting ballots must be in English — and no other
definitive decision about English-only education may be closer, although the
Wichita case seems to hold that administrators are able to demand that English
be spoken at all times at private schools. A case before the Arizona Supreme
Court, Ruiz v. Symington, may spark a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court
that could finally clear the air about bilingual education.
Barra resides in