Technical school's regulation oversteps law, attorney says
An East Valley
technical school is prohibiting students from speaking Spanish in class, a
move a Phoenix attorney said oversteps Arizona's English-immersion mandate
while highlighting the challenges of implementing the controversial law.
"This is a lawsuit waiting to happen," civil rights attorney Stephen Montoya
said. "Forbidding a student from speaking their native language, even in a
classroom setting, violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment."
Earlier this month, East Valley Institute of Technology officials told several
cosmetology students they must refrain from using Spanish during class. One of
the students, Patricia Otero, 16, balked at the rule and brought up the
incident at last weekend's Mesa Latino Town Hall, after the school could not
produce a policy on its English-only stance.
Institute officials say the school's English-only position backs the spirit of
Arizona's English-immersion law, which voters approved in 2000. The school
would make accommodations for monolingual Spanish speakers, but all of the
girls speak English, Principal Janet Cox said.
During a nearly three-hour meeting Oct. 6 with the girls' parents, officials
said the students could speak any language on campus except during class hours
to avoid potential misunderstandings or conflicts.
"We don't want to stop their ability to be bilingual," Assistant Principal
Dana Saar said. "We want them to maintain those skills because they're such a
big plus in the marketplace.
"But the girls are holding conversations in Spanish, which could cause the
teacher to lose control of the classroom."
Otero, who is bilingual, said she supports English-immersion instruction. But
expecting students to refrain from using their native language "amongst
themselves" is unreasonable, she said.
"This is my first language. I think I should be able to use it as long as it
doesn't interfere with the class," she said. "This is an informal class in a
salon where everyone talks, so why can't we?"
The incident is one of several in the Valley highlighting the challenges of
Proposition 203, which replaced bilingual education with English immersion in
the 2001-02 school year. Since then, the law has resulted in several
contentious battles because it is filled with loopholes and the term
"English-immersion" is often interpreted differently from school to school.
Recent flare-ups include the English-only controversy at P.T. Coe Elementary
School in Phoenix, where teachers said they were told to ban Spanish on
campus, and a federal civil rights investigation of the Paradise Valley
Unified School district over allegations that Spanish-speaking parents were
discriminated against at schools.
The law clearly states that all instruction needs to be in "Structured English
Immersion." But teachers can use a student's native language to clarify terms.
It purposely omits the issue of students speaking other languages to steer
clear of civil rights challenges, Montoya said.
"But many teachers still mistakenly feel English immersion means everything
has to be in English, which is not the law," he said.
Mesa High School Principal Pete Lesar said many of the misunderstandings stem
from teachers' passion to help English learners become fluent. Otero, a junior
at Mesa High, is one of 2,000 students from 10 feeder school districts that
also attend the institute.
Lesar contacted the institute to get further clarification of its English-only
policies. But he declined to speak on the issue to avoid conflicts with the
technical school that serves about 85 Mesa High students.
"I will say that we (Mesa Unified) do not have a rule or policy regarding what
languages students speak in our classrooms," he said. "We want to create an
atmosphere where students can celebrate their traditions and culture and
speaking in their native language is one way to do that."
Otero's mother, Gabriela, said she wished more schools embraced that
"I walked out of that EVIT meeting so disappointed because I had to explain to
my daughter that they wouldn't budge, and she couldn't use the language she
loves," she said.
"Latinos often lapse into Spanish when talking to each other. It's a way for
us to bond. But they're telling her she's being rude and making it seem wrong
for her to use it. It's very disheartening."
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