A Catholic school’s policy that requires students to speak only English while in school does not in itself create a hostile learning environment, a federal judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, denying a request by three Hispanic families to ban the policy. While the policy as written did not violate any law, the school’s failure to recognize its impact on the Hispanic students was troubling, he said.
“It is not my place to pass on the wisdom or soundness of the policy,” Marten said in ruling from the bench. He said he would issue a more detailed written decision in a few days.
Marten told about 60 people who crowded into the courtroom that it was a sad day for all involved. He scolded both sides for bringing an issue about lunchroom and playground rules into a federal courtroom.
“It has divided a school. It has divided a congregation. It has divided the Hispanic community in a congregation,” Marten said. “And it has touched a nerve across the country.”
The lawsuit was filed by parents Mike and Clara Silva, Maria and Fermin Fernandez, and Guadalupe Cruz-Tello on behalf of their minor children. The three children at the center of the case were sixth-graders when St. Anne Catholic School adopted the policy in September 2007.
Named as defendants were the school, Principal Margaret Nugent, St. Anne Catholic Parish and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita. None of the other schools in the diocese have a similar policy.
Clara Silva told reporters after the ruling that she felt much confusion about it but was heartened that the judge said her 12-year-old son, Adam, had not done anything wrong. He is now attending public schools.
“He has been scarred for life, but we have a strong family,” she said.
The plaintiffs claimed the policy violated the Civil Rights Act and another federal statute by intentionally discriminating against the sixth-grade students and causing a hostile educational environment.
Marten said the English-only policy itself was neutral, leaving as the only issue whether the way it was implemented created a hostile learning environment. He ruled it did not.
The diocese contended the school adopted the policy as a legitimate response to inappropriate behavior by a few middle-school students.
But the judge was critical of the administration for imposing the rule without any discussion with the Hispanic community.
“What if the time and effort spent getting ready for this trial had been used to try to resolve this together,” he said, “seeking solutions as a matter of mutual respect?”
The Rev. Thomas Leland, the pastor at St. Anne, told reporters after the judge’s decision that the policy will remain in place for now.
“There must be unity and discipline for learning and spiritual formation to take place,” Leland said in a written statement. “The unifying element in this case was the English language, because it’s the common denominator among the students, teachers and administrators.”
About 35 percent of the students at St. Anne Catholic School are Hispanic. About 54 percent are Caucasian, 10 percent Asian and less than 1 percent black or American Indian.
“The judge made some pretty good comments,” Diocese spokesman Fred Solis said outside the courthouse. “I think we will take it to heart. … I agree with what he said with regard to the divisiveness. There are no winners in this because the hurtful feelings remain.”
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