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Feds: Colorado District Discriminated Against Spanish-Speaking Students, Teachers

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report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights finds that a Colorado school district created a hostile environment for Hispanic and Spanish-speaking students, parents and teachers.

The report also concluded that the Adams 14 district in Commerce City, a district of about 7,000 students just north of Denver, did not effectively communicate with parents with limited English skills.

The report examined the district, which has an enrollment that is more than 80 percent Latino, between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 school years. A complaint was filed against the district in 2010. During the investigation, the report says the district did not provide direct access to students or parents.

The report alleges that students were told they could not speak Spanish, even outside of the classroom on playgrounds or at lunch. It also alleges that Spanish-speaking employees were told not to speak Spanish as well.  Spanish language materials were allegedly removed from classrooms.

The report details one incident where an elementary school principal told children they could not speak Spanish during lunch, even though there were kindergarten students present who did not speak English. Spanish-speaking employees who tried to assist those students were stopped, the report alleges.

The report said district administrators said the complaints came from disgruntled teachers who were upset that the district had moved toward away from bilingual education to an all-English model for instructing English Language Learners.

Bilingual teachers reported that they were reprimanded for speaking Spanish, and as a result received poor performance reviews. They also reported feeling that being bilingual was a liability.

The report noted that “District administration targeted the use of Spanish by students and staff for criticism, discipline, unfair treatment and ‘eradication’ regardless of the circumstances, situations or venue…”

The district responded that the small group of teachers complained because they were being reviewed for poor teaching. One principal said they wanted the Spanish-speaking students to have the best English role models when learning English. As a result, she restricted the teaching of teachers with Hispanic accents.

The district has a new superintendent, Pat Sanchez. The Denver Post reported that he would not discuss allegations that bilingual teachers were pushed out of the district and that students were told to speak only English. But he did say changes have been made. Sanchez, who is bilingual, told the newspaper that using a student’s primary language helps them learn English faster than English only, “so it’s very much on the table right now.”

“Very honestly, it starts with training all the adults to view our kids for all the beautiful gifts that they bring,” Sanchez told the Post. “Sixty percent of our kids come to us with the ability to speak Spanish. That’s a huge untapped resource.”

The report concludes by saying that the district agreed to a settlement agreement, including that it will investigate any harassment claims, survey the community on the district’s climate, employ an external consultant to evaluate the district climate, and send a letter to the community in English and Spanish about the allegations and what steps will be taken to address them.

The report also calls for community meetings and a staff working group focused on discrimination.

This report brings up underlying tensions over how to best instruct English learners — through bilingualism or English-only methods — that exist in other districts throughout the country.