First a Kansas school bans any language but English on school grounds. Now a Nevada school district has banned Spanish on the bus. In October, 2007, Robert Aumaugher, superintendent of the Esmeralda County Schools, sent a note informing parents of students attending Fish Lake Valley High School that their children would not be allowed to speak Spanish on the school bus.
Aumaugher, whose office is in Goldfield, the Esmeralda county seat, decided to go English-only on the bus after learning that Nevada’s Spanish-speaking students have lower rates of high school graduation than English speakers. Plus the bus drivers, who don’t speak Spanish, are convinced that students are disrespecting them by speaking Spanish.
Goldfield, pop. 440, is a ghost town that once boasted Virgil Earp as its deputy sheriff. But since it no longer has a high school, students from Goldfield, Dyer, and other nearby towns are bussed to Fish Lake Valley in nearby Nye County.
But even though Nye’s county seat, Pahrump, declared English its official language, Nye school superintendent Rob Roberts insists that in his county, Spanish-speaking students can use their native language on the bus as much as they please, and the Nevada ACLU has stepped in to ask that Esmeralda’s no-Spanish rule be dropped.
The Goldfield Saloon, above, where Virgil Earp died of pneumonia in 1905, still stands, but Goldfield High, below, has seen better days, which is why students are bussed across the county line to Fish Lake Valley.
English is not actually the official language of the state of Nevada. An official language law recently passed the Nevada senate, but the House has taken no action on the bill which states “that a command of English is a critical component of the success and productivity of the children in this State.” If passed, that law would also bar “any law which diminishes or ignores the role of English as the common language of [Nevada].” But since official English is still bottled up in the legislature, counties like Esmeralda, towns like Pahrump, and even school buses driven by English-speaking drivers are making their own English-only rules.
To be fair, Nevada’s proposed language law also recognizes that knowing more than one language is “a significant skill,” but apparently it’s not one that needs to be practiced on the school bus. So the dozen or so Spanish-speaking children from Goldfield and surrounding towns who ride an hour each way to school must ride in silence.
In its letter protesting the ban on Spanish, the ACLU reminds Supt. Aumaugher that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Schools can’t prohibit a language either in school or on the bus simply because students might use it to insult someone. After all, they can insult the bus driver in English and no one orders English banned on the bus.
Furthermore, since the school conducts no educational activities on the school bus, and English-speaking students are free to carry on their own non-educational conversations in English, restricting Spanish constitutes discrimination on the basis of national origin, a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plus, even if they wanted to, the English-speaking bus riders would be prohibited from doing their Spanish homework on the way to school, or while they’re going back home.
In his letter to parents, Supt. Aumaugher admits that he didn’t work very hard on his own Spanish when he was a student. He remembers wistfully that verbs gave him a lot of trouble, and now it's hard for him now to speak with his Spanish-speaking daughter-in-law and his bilingual grandson. He doesn’t want his Spanish-speaking students to make the same mistake, to regret not having learned English when they had the chance.
“Since they’re obviously not learning English in school,” Aumaugher told the Pahrump Valley Times, “what better place is there to pick it up than on the bus, where they won’t be exposed to stuffy academic English or be expected to conjugate verbs? On the bus they’ll quickly learn from the other children those short, pithy English idioms without which no one can really be considered fluent.” He added that what the other children don’t teach their little Hispanic friends, the bus driver will certainly supplement with the kind of language, complete with hand signals, that only bus drivers get to use.
There will be no more El Autobús Mágico, as Esmeralda County, Nevada, bans Spanish on its school busses.
It wasn’t all that long ago that children were physically punished for speaking their native language in school, and Esmeralda hasn’t indicated how it will catch and punish violators of the new no-Spanish rule. However, while Nevada banned corporal punishment back in 1993, Supt. Aumaugher indicated that he hasn’t given up on the idea of riding shotgun on the school bus, and even bringing back Virgil Earp’s brand of frontier justice to Esmeralda's unruly schools. Aumaugher neglected to mention that neither Virgil nor his brother Wyatt ever finished high school.
UPDATE: In response to a letter from the ACLU, the Esmeralda Country School District agreed to change its restrictive language policy. After school, on the ride home, students will now be asked to practice their English for the first 45 minutes of the ride, which is designated "homework time." Those whose English is more proficient will be asked to assist those whose English is more limited. During the second 45-minute leg of the journey, designated as "free time," and during the entire morning ride, students may speak whatever language they want, though they are asked to speak to tutors and the driver in English, or to ask another student to interpret for them. While the school district has acknowledge students' rights to free speech, it is still asserting control over student speech by requesting certain language use and granting students permission to speak Spanish during their "free time," except when talking to the driver.
Well-known former U.S. marshal, high school drop out, and Goldfield, Nevada, deputy sheriff Virgil Walter Earp