By Christina M. Woods
The Wichita Eagle
Four Wichita families filed a discrimination lawsuit Monday in federal court against St. Anne Catholic School over a policy that requires English to be spoken at all times during the school day.
The lawsuit calls for an end to St. Anne’s policy, an order barring English-only or similar policies at other diocese schools and $75,000 for court and other costs.
The families want students to be able to speak other languages if they choose during their free time – not in the classroom or during instructional times.
A diocese spokesman called the discrimination suit “unfortunate”, saying the Catholic Church has a history of offering support and services to minorities and of speaking out for immigrant rights.
But one of the parents behind the suit said he’s concerned that the English-only policy could spread.
“I think if one school is granted their wish by not allowing their students to speak another language, then other schools will follow suit” said Michael Silva.
St. Anne’s language policy has been in effect since September.
The lawsuit claims that the policy “has created and continues to promote racial and national origin discrimination”.
Diocese spokesman Fred Solis said he cannot agree with the discrimination claim.
“We have to disagree with the notion that the church, or the diocese or St. Anne for that matter is or has discriminated against any member of a minority group given our history, and the many ways that, even today, we ago about to speak out on behalf of immigrants, minorities and the many services we offer to those groups of people,” he said.
The school, its principal, Sister Margaret Nugent, the parish and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita are named defendants in the lawsuit.
The families who brought the suit include Silva and his wife, Clara, Fermin and Maria Fernandez, Guadalupe Cruz-Tello and Alma Contreras.
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.
According to its most recent count, the school has 243 students – 75 are Hispanic, 27 are Asian, two are black and 139 are white.
The lawsuit contends that since the school receives federal money for its free – and reduced-price lunch program, it is subject to federal anti-discrimination laws. But a diocese lawyer wrote in a letter dated April 7 that the Wichita school district receives and distributes such federal funding. Students – not St. Anne- receive the federal funding, wrote Jay Fowler of Foulston Siefkin law firm.
The students involved in the lawsuit are U.S. Citizens whose first language is English, but they speak Spanish. None have disciplinary records, court documents said.
Lawyers for the families contend bullying was not the initial reason the school enacted the policy. Rather, a letter outlining the policy stated in part “the more students are immersed in the English language the better the chance for improvement/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 McHugh, the attorney representing the families. “When one doesn’t work, you move on to the next reason.”
The Silvas, whose sixth-grade son, Adam, is among the students involved, said they’ve tried to resolve the matter privately by meeting with the diocese and having their lawyers correspond with diocese lawyers.
Adam Silva, they said, was expelled from St. Anne after refusing to sing a pledge acknowledging the language policy. His last day was Oct. 12. He had attended the school since prekindergarten.
The diocese, however, said Adam Silva was transferred to another area Catholic school at his parents’ request.
Solis said the school has not had any further problems regarding the language policy.
“I think the problem probably left when the young boy was transferred to another school,” he said.
The Silvas, who previously acted as the school’s liaison to Hispanic families, ask in the lawsuit for their son to be allowed to return to St. Anne.
“In his mind, he really wants to be back with his friends attending Sr. Anne’s school,” said Michael Silva. “We’re not going to deny that from him. If that’s what he wants, we’re going to support him.”
The family still attends Sr. Anne and said they still tithe.