Mesa’s East Valley Institute of Technology agreed Monday to back off a policy that bans cosmetology students from speaking Spanish among themselves in the classroom.
"For right now, the teacher will remove this rule from the classroom. They will not enforce it," said junior Patricia Otero, 16, who attended a twohour meeting Monday at the school with about 15 administrators, board members, parents and civil rights activists.
Earlier in the day, a civil rights group announced a federal complaint filed with the Civil Rights Office of the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Otero. In the complaint, the Arizona chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens contends that the classroom ban on Otero’s native language at a public school that receives federal funds violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"If you draw federal funds, you cannot discriminate based on language," said Silverio Garcia Jr., education chairman of Arizona LULAC.
Garcia said LULAC is not seeking punitive damages from EVIT in the complaint and only wants EVIT "fixed."
EVIT spokeswoman Lynn Strang said Monday that the school had not seen a copy of the complaint and has not been contacted by the U.S. Department of Education. She said her school has been working toward a resolution with the families involved and a different civil rights group, the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. "We want very much to find a resolution with the families," Strang said.
The Spanish language debate started Oct. 1 at EVIT when a cosmetology teacher scolded Otero and other Hispanic students in front of the class for chatting among themselves in Spanish during lab time while other students chatted in English.
Otero said one of the Hispanic students was a recent immigrant who did not speak English well. But the teacher, who speaks only English, said speaking Spanish in front of English speakers is rude and raises classroom management and safety concerns.
"It seems fair to us that a teacher would be able to know what’s going on in her classroom," Strang said. She said EVIT has asked the state for a "pure interpretation" of Arizona’s English immersion law and will comply with whatever instructions are handed down.
Garcia said EVIT’s concerns about classroom safety, however, are without merit and cloud the real issues.
"LULAC says it’s not a safety issue; this is a cultural and ethnic issue," Garcia said.
Otero, who attends Mesa High School for her core academic subjects, said she has taken heat from several EVIT classmates since she went public with her civil rights complaint last month. Her story has been covered heavily in the Valley’s Hispanic media.
"Many girls have told me I’m making a big deal about this," Otero said. On Thursday, she said she was left crying in the hallway when the criticism became especially sharp.
"But I’m not doing this just for me," she said. "This has been going on for many years."
EVIT invites the community to visit the campus for cosmetology care, but Otero said the school has historically done little to include the Hispanic community.
"When you go into the marketplace, it isn’t English only," he said. "In true reality there is a huge demand for bilingualism."
Strang said the school never told the girls that Spanish was bad or that they could not speak Spanish outside the classroom.
"I think bilingualism is one of the greatest advantages that a person could possibly have," Strang said.