In 2007, St. Anne School, a Wichita Catholic elementary school, ordered its students to speak only English while on school grounds. Students and parents were asked to sign forms acknowledging the new policy.
Exhibit A: Part of the English-only form that parents were expected to sign and return
A separate letter to students signed by the principal, Sister Margaret Nugent, threatened consequences for noncompliance, and several students who didn't sign were expelled.
Three families whose students were expelled then sued St. Anne's in federal court to reverse the school's English-only policy and decriminalize "talking while Spanish."
At the trial, which began in Wichita earlier this week, one student became so emotional while testifying about the discrimination he faced for speaking Spanish that the judge had to call a recess. Later the same day, the student's mother told the court about a hate-filled email, written by a student and sent to other students and parents, telling Hispanics to go home if they didn't like the new language policy.
Although the school already had a no-bullying policy, Sr. Nugent testified that she implemented the English-only policy to stop students from using Spanish to bully children and make derogatory comments about the staff. The principal didn't indicate why the "go back where you came from" email was not considered bullying.
WKSN, Wichita's NBC affiliate, reported the trial on the air and on its web site, and allowed readers to comment. Responses show that language choice is an emotional issue, one that reflects attitudes about immigrants and cocnern about who gets to make the rules.
Support for the school ranged from "it's a private school, they can do what they want" to arguments where "we" (true-blue American speakers of English who, even though "we" are the descendants of immigrants, are tired of the self-serving demands of immigrants) are invariably opposed to "them" (ungrateful and unpatriotic foreigners unwilling to make an effort to assimilate and who talk about "us" in a language we can't understand):
- you don't know what they are saying and for all you know they could be talking bad about another student.
- My mother lives next door to a lady who speaks only Spanish and no English. Her children speak English and Spanish. I have heard her children outside using inappropriate 4 letter words and the bad thing is that she can't even punish them because she has no idea what they are saying. This is why everyone should speak English.
- We wouldn't tolerate degrading language in English, why should we let it slide if it is spoken in Spanish or any other language? . . . my students were not aware of the fact that I could understand Spanish. As a result, I overheard many students making degrading comments about their classmates, teachers, or myself, and was able to hold them accountable for their actions. Should they have been able to get away with it simply because they used a different language?
- English only should be upheld, because it does cause problems of "bullying" by people making slurs and bad remarks in Spanish towards non-Spanish speaking people. If we start at school, perhaps it will help eliminate some of the hostility in the work place, and it is a problem at large companies.
Others argue that English is the language of Democracy with a capital "D":
- This is an issue of the needs of the many, outweighing the needs of the few, which is what this country was originally founded upon.
They add that permitting foreign languages isn't fair. Plus, "we" already bend over backwards for "them":
- I do not believe that the school is discriminating against any ethnic group, but just trying to prevent exclusion of the non-Spanish speaking children.
- Any other language besides English in any establishment be it public or private should not be allowed. It only serves to segregate people and promote racial intolerance.
- How fair is it when an English speaking student gets consequences for bullying, and the Spanish clique, speaking in Spanish, say the same derogatory remark, or worse, than the English speaking students, and don't get consequences?
- a learning environment isn't as affective as it could be when everyone isn't speaking the same language.
- We have a Spanish Mass for them and we also have classes in preparation for Communion … in Spanish for those that needed it. I don't know what more they expect from us and our parish.
Then there's the argument that English is the law (actually, it's not):
- a few years back Congress declared English the official language of this country, that to me means that when the Spanish or any other foreign speaking people step out of their house or their car, it's English or keep your mouth shut. Any more when I go to the store I feel I'm in a foreign country, because I can't understand half of what is being said around me and it's time for it to stop. So yes the school is right to expect them to learn the language of this land and more power to em.
And the old standby, "if you don't like it here, go back where you came from":
- We believe that if you want to live in America you should speak the English in our school. We don't under stand why our country should bow down to speaking Spanish everywhere; their country sure wouldn't do the same for us.
- If someone does not like the rules they can choose to go someplace else for their education.
- this is the USA and if you want to speak Spanish go to Mexico.
- If the parents/students don't like the rules, go somewhere else.
- We were here first! Learn our language and use it to communicate with us or go back to a Spanish speaking country.
Of course there are some supporters of the students' right to speak Spanish or any other language, even at a private school. Most of them proudly acknowledge the U.S. as a diverse nation, noting as well that we need more than one language in a multilingual world. But one commentator seems to have missed Vatican 2:
I find it kind of ironic that the Catholic Church takes a one-language policy when so much of the religion is based in Latin. The whole outfit needs to get with the program. We're not a one language society.
These reactions are not confined to Wichita. A letter in May to the Kansas City Star, under the headline "English only, please," sums up a number of common complaints about foreign languages pervading the American heartland:
I would like to thank the local newscasts for their reporting of the thunderstorm warnings and tornado warnings on May 1.
Not once did I hear the warnings in Spanish, nor did the scrolling information across the screen come across the TV in Spanish. Someone finally realizes we are in the United States of America and our native language is English.
I am tired of going to stores to see a sign in English and then the same sign in Spanish, or calling into local companies on their toll-free numbers and being asked what language I prefer in their automated response units.
We speak English in this country, and those who are here should learn to speak the language of the country they chose to make a home in and work in (I won't go into legally or not).
If you are in the U.S. and want the American Dream, learn to speak English or go back to your country and speak your native language there.
But most surprising among the English-only group is the feeling that some people seem to have that speakers of other languages are not just making fun of us in a language we can't understand, they're actually plotting against us, that talking while Spanish is either a felony, or evidence of a conspiracy to commit a felony, and only English can keep us safe:
- English has to be the only language, unless we want any "other language" speaking groups, cliques or gangs from planning vandalism, or worse, a killing spree. It CAN happen in Kansas, and has. I applaud the [St. Anne School] administration for keeping ALL the students safe.
- The teachers who watch these kids at recess, on Church property should not have to learn Spanish to know that the kids aren't planning a shooting.