Houston Chronicle: The Hempstead school board won't renew the contract of a principal who instructed her students not to speak Spanish, in a rapidly-evolving district where more than half of the students, like many Texas schools, are now Hispanic.
Hempstead Middle School Principal Amy Lacey was placed on paid administrative leave in December after reportedly announcing, via intercom, that students were not to speak Spanish on the school's campus. The Hispanic population of the rural area, roughly 50 miles northwest of Houston, is growing quickly, and Latino advocates say that it's important to allow Spanish in public schools.
"When you start banning aspects of ethnicity or cultural identity," says Augustin Pinedo, director of the League of United Latin American Citizens Region 18, "it sends the message that the child is not wanted: 'We don't want your color. We don't want your kind.' They then tend to drop out early."
Such fast growth is pervasive in Texas, says Steve Murdock, a professor at Rice University and director of theHobby Center for the Study of Texas. Half of all Texas public-school students are now Hispanic, he notes. "When you look at issues related to education in Texas, to a great extent, you're looking at the education of Hispanic children."
Similar growth patterns, he says, hold true for the rest of the United States: "It's not just Texas."
Civil rights advocates say Lacey's suspension may have set off a campaign to intimidate Hispanics, including the district's superintendent, Delma Flores-Smith. They are calling for the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate possible civil rights violations. An FBI spokesman would not confirm an investigation.
Flores-Smith reports that she's seen strangers watching her house and taking photos. She says vandals have trashed her yard, and someone has rifled through her garbage. She is worried about her safety.
Last month, school employees found that vandals had damaged the brakes of three Hempstead Independent School District buses and had left behind the bedraggled remains of a dead cat.
A bus with visibly severed brake lines didn't leave the bus barn that morning. But two other buses, whose air-brake lines had been subtly nicked, carried children to school before the damage was discovered. Police investigated but didn't identify any suspects.
"A lot of this sounds like Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s," Pinedo said during Monday night's school board meeting, where the decision was made not to renew Lacey's contract.
Pinedo acknowledged that there's no hard evidence that the incidents are related or that they're hate crimes.
"But when the lives of children are put in danger, that's the bottom line," he said. "We don't know what the reasons are. Rather than guess, we're asking the FBI to step in."
He said LULAC and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund have asked the Department of Justice to investigate possible civil rights violations.
"The whole world is watching," said Tony Diaz, head of the Houston-based radio show Nuestra Palabra and founder of the advocacy group Librotraficantes. "Banning Spanish is a national issue."
They also note that there's no evidence that speaking Spanish hampers learning English, and note that in most of the rest of the world, it's common to speak two or more languages.
At the school district's board meeting in January, Pinedo read a list of American Founding Fathers who spoke multiple languages. They included Benjamin Franklin (French) and Thomas Jefferson (French, Italian, Spanish and Latin).
In other action at the meeting Monday, the board voted not to renew the contract of longtime business managerSharon Loukanis. In October the board had placed her on leave while investigating financial irregularities including work allegedly steered to the plumbing company owned by Loukanis' husband.
Both Lacey's and Loukanis' contracts will expire at the end of the school year.
Before the board's vote, former school board member Kay Kloecker argued that Lacey and Loukanis should be reinstated. Lacey and Loukanis, she said, "continue to get paychecks, but we're paying consultants to do their jobs. The public deserves an explanation for why we haven't had them come back to work when it's been shown that none of the allegations is true."
Lacey said the terms of her leave don't allow her to comment.
Outside the board meeting, Kloecker said that the problem was Flores-Smith, not issues of culture or race.
"We've been a predominantly Hispanic district for several years now," she said. "But we never had a problem until she came." Flores-Smith started the job in August.
After the vote, Flores-Smith expressed satisfaction. "I'm hoping everything will die down now," she said. "We need to get back to peaceful living. And education."