Hispanics Sue Over English-Only Rule at Catholic School

Four Hispanic families are suing St. Anne's Catholic School over a policy that requires students to speak English at all times while at school.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, calls for an end to the policy and asks for an order barring similar policies at other diocese schools. It seeks the return of one student to the school who was allegedly kicked out for refusing to sign the "English only" pledge. And it asks for court costs and unspecified damages for discrimination and emotional suffering.

"Language is an essential characteristic of one's national origin," according to the complaint filed in the case. "The ban on Spanish at St. Anne's created an atmosphere of intimidation, inferiority and isolation for Hispanic students."

The lawsuit was filed by parents Mike and Clara Silva, Maria and Fermin Fernandez, Guadalupe Cruz-Tello and Alma Contreras on behalf of themselves and their minor children. It names as defendants St. Anne Catholic School, Principal Margaret Nugent, St. Anne Catholic Parish and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita.

"I think if one school is granted their wish by not allowing their students to speak another language, then other schools will follow suit," Mike Silva said.

Diocese spokesman Fred Solis called the lawsuit unfortunate, saying the church has historically offered support and services to minorities and spoken out for immigrant rights.

The diocese has said the school enacted the policy in response to four students who were using Spanish to bully others and to put down teachers and administrators.

The majority of the school's 243 students are white. It has 75 Hispanic students, 27 Asian students and two who are black.

The parents claim in their lawsuit that since the school receives federal money for its free and reduced-price lunch program, it is subject to federal anti-discrimination laws. The district contends it is the students who receive the federal funding.

The students named in the lawsuit are bilingual U.S. citizens with no disciplinary records, court documents contend.

Lawyers for the Hispanic families contend bullying was not the initial reason the school enacted the policy, citing a letter the school sent saying that the more students are immersed in the English language the better their chance for improvement and success.

"One real problem that I think the plaintiffs have with the policy is not just that it's a bad policy, but that the justification keeps changing," said Christopher M. McHugh, an attorney for the families. "When one doesn't work, you move on to the next reason."

In a letter to the families' lawyer, diocese attorney Jay Fowler suggested the lawsuit would become a divisive issue for the community.

"The politicization of what basically is a disagreement between a parent and a school will most likely morph into an anti-immigrant sentiment, thereby undermining the effects of both our clients," he wrote.