In Hempstead, No Habla Español

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Hempstead ISD seal

On Nov. 12, Hempstead Middle School Principal Amy Lacey took to her school intercom with an unusual announcement: Students were now banned from speaking Spanish in school. This was necessary, Lacey said, “to avoid disruption.” Rarely has a middle school intercom announcement caused such a stir. The fallout made national headlines and, once again, painted Texas as a backward state intolerant of its multicultural population.

Students at Hempstead Middle School, between Brenham and Houston, have said at least a couple of teachers took Lacey’s announcement as license to discriminate against Hispanic kids.

“There’s one teacher that said, ‘If you speak Spanish in my class, I’m going to write you up,’” eighth-grader Tiffani Resurez told KHOU-11 news.

On Dec. 2, more than two weeks after Lacey’s announcement, a letter went home from the superintendent assuring parents that “neither the district or any campus has any policy prohibiting the speaking of Spanish.”

After the story went public, school district spokesperson Laurie Bettis released a written statement that included the sentiment that the district is “continuing to ‘Create a Culture of Excellence’ which includes embracing all students of all cultural and diverse backgrounds. Our priorities are our students.”

But in a school with an enrollment that’s half Hispanic, Lacey’s actions hardly seem culturally sensitive to the students. The principal remains on paid leave until the school board finishes its investigation into the incident. The district held a public meeting on Dec. 9 for parents to air their concerns.

“I really believe [Lacey] did the right thing,” Jamie Cavender told the school board, according to KHOU. “My children don’t know if they’re being talked about or being made fun of.”

This incident in Hempstead revives a sad Texas tradition. Fear and ignorance have long motivated discrimination against Texas’ Hispanic students. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online, sometime between 1880 and 1930 Hispanic children faced a curriculum that was less about the three R’s and more about “the three Cs: (common cultural norms, civics instruction, and command of English).” According to the handbook, “Linguistic intolerance was reflected in English-only policies. Inferior schooling and unfavorable socioeconomic circumstances caused lower test scores, higher withdrawal rates, and lower median number of school years than the general population received.”

Hey, that sounds familiar.

While some English-only advocates like to argue that Hispanic students’ refusal to learn English leads to poor academic performance, systemic issues like economic disparities and inferior school resources are the real culprits. But why take on a difficult challenge like systemic racism when you can just ban someone else’s native tongue?

I would like to point out to the dunderheads who advocate for English-only policies in this country that the majority of people around the world—66 percent actually—are multilingual. Compare that with the United States, where only 17 percent of Americans speak more than one language. Could this have anything to do with the fact that we now rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading among developed nations? According to the Global Languages Initiative, knowing more than one language increases cognitive abilities such as problem solving, creativity and memory. And how about this: Shanghai pupils, who outscored every other country in the world on that same test, begin learning English at age 6.

Forget the fact that Spanish was spoken for hundreds of years before English was ever uttered in Texas. This is about where our country is headed.

Through modern globalization, a large percentage of corporations in the U.S. are foreign owned or based. Learning a second and third language can only improve job prospects.

At the time of this writing, no decision has been made on what to do about Principal Lacey, but some parents are calling for her job. Considering almost 30 percent of Waller County, of which Hempstead is the county seat, is Hispanic, perhaps Lacey ought to forego banning Spanish from her school and consider learning the language herself. It could only improve her job prospects.

Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.

  • 1bimbo

    it’s a double-edged sword. hispanic kids lag behind and don’t test well in public schools because of the language barrier, but then an educator who demands those kids master the language by speaking it exclusively in her class is vilified by the looney liberals.

    • April D. Korbel

      There’s a huge difference between conducting classes only in English and telling students they cannot speak Spanish on school grounds. Students need to be taught and encouraged to develop a mastery of English because it’s the language of commerce and Government. However, they should be free to conduct their personal conversations in whatever language they choose. Being multi-lingual is never a bad thing. It’s actually good for you.

  • Texas_Weston

    First hand knowledge as someone who heard the announcement in question… The administrator never said those words, she never ” banned Spanish” she only reminded students that’s their state assessments would be in Spanish and that when asked by a teacher to participate in class work they should do so in English to help prepare them for the test. This was all started by a few students who chose to socialize in Spanish with their classmates instead of working in classwork, and the teacher (not fluent I spanish) wanted to ensure they were diligently working on their studies instead of socializing while in class. When English speaking students started getting off topic the teacher could redirect them, but the students in question would just claim they were not gossiping and we’re actually working, essentially negating the teachers ability to reprimand them as she would the English speaking students. This whole thing is promulgated by a few students not accurately understanding the reasoning, and exaggerating the facts.