Spanish at School Translates to Suspension

Aurolyn Luykx aurolynluykx at
Tue Dec 13 20:56:45 UTC 2005

Spanish at School Translates to Suspension 
    By T.R. Reid 
    The Washington Post

    Friday 09 December 2005

    Kansas City, Kan. - Most of the time, 16-year-old
Zach Rubio converses in clear, unaccented American
teen-speak, a form of English in which the three most
common words are "like," "whatever" and "totally." But
Zach is also fluent in his dad's native language,
Spanish - and that's what got him suspended from

    "It was, like, totally not in the classroom," the
high school junior said, recalling the infraction. "We
were in the, like, hall or whatever, on restroom
break. This kid I know, he's like, 'Me prestas un
dolar?' ['Will you lend me a dollar?'] Well, he asked
in Spanish; it just seemed natural to answer that way.
So I'm like, 'No problema.' "

    But that conversation turned out to be a big
problem for the staff at the Endeavor Alternative
School, a small public high school in an ethnically
mixed blue-collar neighborhood. A teacher who
overheard the two boys sent Zach to the office, where
Principal Jennifer Watts ordered him to call his
father and leave the school.

    Watts, whom students describe as a disciplinarian,
said she can't discuss the case. But in a written
"discipline referral" explaining her decision to
suspend Zach for 1 1/2 days, she noted: "This is not
the first time we have [asked] Zach and others to not
speak Spanish at school."

    Since then, the suspension of Zach Rubio has
become the talk of the town in both English and
Spanish newspapers and radio shows. The school
district has officially rescinded his punishment and
said that speaking a foreign language is not grounds
for suspension. Meanwhile, the Rubio family has
retained a lawyer, who says a civil rights lawsuit may
be in the offing.

    The tension here surrounding that brief exchange
in a high school hall reflects a broader national
debate over the language Americans should speak amid a
wave of Hispanic immigration.

    The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic
advocacy group, says that 20 percent of the US
school-age population is Latino. For half of those
Latino students, the native language is Spanish.

    Conflicts are bursting out nationwide over
bilingual education, "English-only" laws,
Spanish-language publications and advertising, and
other linguistic collisions. Language concerns have
been a key aspect of the growing political movement to
reduce immigration.

    "There's a lot of backlash against the increasing
Hispanic population," said D.C. school board member
Victor A. Reinoso. "We've seen some of it in the D.C.
schools. You see it in some cities, where people
complain that their tax money shouldn't be used to
print public notices in Spanish. And there have been
cases where schools want to ban foreign languages."

    Some advocates of an English-only policy in US
schools say that it is particularly important for
students from immigrant families to use the nation's
dominant language.

    California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) made
that point this summer when he vetoed a bill
authorizing various academic subjects to be tested in
Spanish in the state's public schools. "As an
immigrant," the Austrian-born governor said, "I know
the importance of mastering English as quickly and as
comprehensively as possible."

    Hispanic groups generally agree with that, but
they emphasize the value of a multilingual citizenry.
"A fully bilingual young man like Zach Rubio should be
considered an asset to the community," said Janet
Murguia, national president of La Raza.

    The influx of immigrants has reached every corner
of the country - even here in Kansas City, which is
about as far as a US town can be from a border. Along
Southwest Boulevard, a main street through some of the
older neighborhoods, there are blocks where almost
every shop and restaurant has signs written in

    "Most people, they don't care where you're from,"
said Zach's father, Lorenzo Rubio, a native of
Veracruz, Mexico, who has lived in Kansas City for a
quarter-century. "But sometimes, when they hear my
accent, I get this, sort of, 'Why don't you go back
home?' "

    Rubio, a US citizen, credits US immigration law
for his decision to fight his son's suspension.

    "You can't just walk in and become a citizen," he
said. "They make you take this government test. I
studied for that test, and I learned that in America,
they can't punish you unless you violate a written

    Rubio said he remembered that lesson on Nov. 28,
when he received a call from Endeavor Alternative
saying his son had been suspended.

    "So I went to the principal and said, 'My son,
he's not suspended for fighting, right? He's not
suspended for disrespecting anyone. He's suspended for
speaking Spanish in the hall?' So I asked her to show
me the written policy about that. But they didn't
have" one.

    Rubio then called the superintendent of the Turner
Unified School District, which operates the school.
The district immediately rescinded Zach's suspension,
local media reported. The superintendent did not
respond to several requests to comment for this

    Since then, the issue of speaking Spanish in the
hall has not been raised at the school, Zach said. "I
know it would be, like, disruptive if I answered in
Spanish in the classroom. I totally don't do that. But
outside of class now, the teachers are like,
'Whatever.' "

    For Zach's father, and for the Hispanic
organizations that have expressed concern, the
suspension is not a closed case. "Obviously they've
violated his civil rights," said Chuck Chionuma, a
lawyer in Kansas City, Mo., who is representing the
Rubio family. "We're studying what form of legal
redress will correct the situation."

    Said Rubio: "I'm mainly doing this for other
Mexican families, where the legal status is kind of
shaky and they are afraid to speak up. Punished for
speaking Spanish? Somebody has to stand up and say:
This is wrong."

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