Spanish speaking students trigger civil rights showdown in Texas

When I was a kid in Texas you were forbidden to speak Spanish in school, and perhaps the teachers and administrators who would punish you,…

Bilingual classroom have become more commonplace in the US. (Shutterstock)

When I was a kid in Texas you were forbidden to speak Spanish in school, and perhaps the teachers and administrators who would punish you, if you did, should have been called Amy Lacey.

That was the 1950s, before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s that began opening diversity in the country, and it seemed like there was an Amy Lacey in each classroom and in each principal’s office in Texas and throughout the Southwest.

They may have had a bigger impact on the Spanish-speaking school kids who had no way of learning English than the educational system itself.

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Many were the children of Spanish-speaking Mexican migrant workers or of first generation Mexican-Americans who themselves were primarily Spanish-speaking. There was no bilingual education at the time, and Spanish-speaking teachers were a rarity.

More than half a century later, we’ve been told the system has changed – that Spanish-speaking children are taught English in bilingual ed programs and that the schools are more tolerant toward youngsters who still have to communicate primarily in Spanish.

But the most convincing sign that schools in Texas have possibly changed for the better came this week when a suburban school outside Houston took the strongest stance it could against one of its administrators who had discriminated against Spanish-speaking students – by firing her.

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Her real name is what we should call all teachers and administrators of that ilk: Amy Lacey. She was principal of Hempstead Middle School, and her contract was terminated by district officials. They had earlier placed her on paid administrative leave after she announced on the school’s intercom system that speaking Spanish anywhere on the campus would be prohibited.

Hooray for those school district officials.

Hempstead is a town west of Houston in Waller County, Texas, which has an increasing Hispanic population most noticeable in the school system where Latinos outnumber whites.

There has been growing ethnic tensions over the years, and the town’s Amy Lacey situation has heightened animosities.

Latino parents made Lacey’s behavior perhaps the biggest civil rights issue in the town’s history since the involvement there of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.

“When you start banning aspects of ethnicity or cultural identity, it sends the message that the child is not wanted — ‘We don’t want your color. We don’t want your kind,’” Augustin Pinedo, regional director of the League of United Latin American told the Houston Chronicle. “They then tend to drop out early.”

That was exactly what often happened to Latino students throughout the Southwest when the schools actually did have rules prohibiting the use of Spanish. Dropout rates sometimes approached 75 percent among Latinos and were probably higher, according to some.

“’Americanization’ sometimes meant denigration, too,” author Thomas Sheridan wrote in his history ‘Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson.’ “Sometimes children were taught, in indirect ways, to be ashamed of their Mexican heritage and culture.

“For example, Mexican food lunches were not allowed. You couldn’t play Mexican games out in the playground. You couldn’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo or any Mexican holidays in the school grounds.

“You couldn’t speak Spanish in the school grounds and if you got caught you would get punished.”

Those prohibitions weren’t changed by law until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Act, known among educators as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968, perhaps the most important legislation on diversity and education in America.

LBJ, Lyndon Baines Johnson

File photo of Senator Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas). Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Freedom Act, perhaps one of the most important laws on diversity in the U.S. (AP Photo/Henry Burroughs)

It also was first federal law that recognized the needs of Limited English Speaking Ability (LESA) students.

The legislation was the brainchild of a sympathetic liberal U.S. Senator from Texas named Ralph Yarborough, who so angered the state’s conservatives for that and other legislation that two years later they ganged up and defeated him for reelection at the polls.

Unfortunately, those kinds of sentiments are never far away.

The Justice Department has now been called into Hempstead to investigate possible hate crimes in the aftermath of the Amy Lacey issue there, including the tampering of brake lines on three school buses, as well as a campaign of discrimination against the Latino community.

Worse, though, is that some students indicate there may be more Amy Laceys around.

Yedhany Gallegos, an eighth-grader in Hempstead, told a Houston TV station that some teachers have continued to threaten students with detention for speaking Spanish.

“She was like, ‘No speaking Spanish,’” Gallegos said of one incident with a teacher. “I was like, ‘That’s my first language.’ She said, ‘Well you can get out.’”

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