TUCSON (CN) - A nursing student claims in court that Pima Community College suspended her for complaining that her classmates spoke Spanish, and that the nursing program director called her a "bigot and a bitch" for objecting to it.
Terri Bennett claims police escorted her from Pima Community College's (PCC) Desert Vista Campus in April after she complained to several staff members about the constant use of Spanish by students in the nursing program. Bennett called it distracting.
Bennett sued the college in Pima County Superior Court, alleging harassment, privacy violations, breach of contract, violations of the Arizona Constitution, retaliation, defamation, discrimination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The college and its board of governors are the only defendants.
In her Anatomy and Physiology class this year, Bennett says in the complaint, "Ms. Bennett was the only first-language English speaker, and the other students spoke primarily in Spanish. The same occurred during skills labs, clinicals and other classroom activities.
"Ms. Bennett does not speak or understand Spanish.
"At the end of the class, the students were requested to fill out anonymous evaluation forms giving feedback on the instructor, material and class in general.
"The students were assured that the evaluation forms were anonymous.
"On her form submitted during or about March 2013, Ms. Bennett noted she would prefer if there were 'no Spanish in the classroom.'
"On or about March 18, 2013, Ms. Bennett started a class in Introduction to Nursing, presented by PCC instructor Ms. Elizabeth Coleman.
"During this class, the talking, interruptions and distractions, all in Spanish, from her peers increased dramatically, to the point that it impede Ms. Bennett's ability to concentrate, focus, listen to the lecture, and participate in group studies, clinicals, and other learning activities.
"On or about April 3, 2013, Ms. Bennett participated in an interaction between Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers in her class, in which the Spanish speakers were asked not to speak in Spanish in front of non-Spanish speakers. The Spanish-speaking group of students laughed and mocked Ms. Bennett and the other non-Spanish speakers.
"At this point, Ms. Bennett was finding that the PCC learning environment was hostile to English speakers who did not speak Spanish. She felt ostracized, excluded, and segregated from the rest of her class, the majority of which all spoke Spanish (including the instructors). She felt that she was unable to participate fully in group studies, skills labs, clinicals and other learning activities. The constant translations during class were a distraction, a disruption and prevented her from concentrating and taking full advantage of her studies.
"At this point, Ms. Bennett decided to report the issue of a hostile learning environment to PCC instructors." (Parentheses in original.)
Bennett claims she complained to David Kutzler, director of the nursing program, on April 3. In this meeting in his office, "Ms. Bennett attempted to report to Mr. Kutzler her complaint that she was having difficulty with students speaking Spanish during class and during her group study sessions, and that she found the learning environment to be hostile to her as an English speaker," according to the complaint.
It continues: "Mr. Kutzler reacted very badly to Ms. Bennett's complaint. He accused Ms. Bennett of 'discriminating against Mexican-Americans' and threatened to 'write [her] up for a violation of the code of conduct based on discrimination and harassment.'
"He accused Ms. Bennett of being a 'bigot and a bitch,' and warned her '[y]ou do not want to go down that road.'" (Brackets in complaint.)
Bennett claims the meeting left her "so upset and afraid that she ran from Mr. Kutzler's office in tears."
She says she was "completely taken by surprise" by Kutzler's reaction, "that she was there to complain about an impediment to her learning in a PCC classroom and yet Mr. Kutzler was accusing her
of discrimination and harassment (based simply on her complaint to him in the prior few minutes) for requesting English-only in the classroom." (Parentheses and italics in complaint.)
At a second meeting with Kutzler and three college administrators, on April 4, "PCC staff present accused her of 'being discriminating' and that she would 'not get a job,' and they generally attempted to intimidate Ms. Bennett from exercising her right to express her views and her right to insist that the educational process occurs in a language that she could understand," according to the complaint.
Bennett claims the administrators "suggested that Ms. Bennett 'seek counseling' and suggested that Ms. Bennett may have a learning disability."
"At some point during this meeting, Mr. Kutzler slammed on the table the 'anonymous' evaluated that Ms. Bennett had submitted earlier in the year in which she had requested 'no Spanish in the classroom.' Mr. Kutzler was angry and stated, 'I've been looking to see whose evaluation this is,'" according to the complaint.
Later that month, Bennett says, she received her first-ever negative progress report from a teacher, for "ineffective communication skills" and unresolved issues with other students.
On April 22, campus security officers gave her a suspension letter, escorted her off campus and followed her all to Interstate-10, Bennett says in the complaint.
The envelope contained two letters, one of them a "Notice of Immediate Suspension," Bennett says. This letter "simply advised Ms. Bennett that she was being placed on immediate suspension because '(1) you may present an unreasonable risk of danger to yourself or others or (2) your presence on College property poses a significant risk of disruption of educational activities.' No reasons whatever were given," the complaint states.
The second letter, "Notice to Student of Review Meeting," claimed that Bennett "had violated three provisions of the Code of Conduct, namely, that she 1) disrupted class, 2) engaged in discriminatory conduct, and 3) engaged in 'harassing conduct,' including 'stalking' and 'bullying.'"
Bennett claims her suspension violated the Arizona constitution, which establishes English as the state's official language.
"PCC, as a state-owned educational facility, is obliged to preserve, protect and enhance the role of the English language in its classrooms," the complaint states.
Bennett also claims that the suspension violated her freedom of speech.
"PCC took extreme disciplinary measures against Ms. Bennett because she expressed her opinion about English being spoken in PCC classrooms," the complaint states.
She is represented by John Munger with Munger Chadwick in Tucson.
ProEnglish, a group that lobbies to make English the only official language in the United States, says it is providing "legal support" to Bennett. Its website states that "ProEnglish contacted the Arizona law firm of Munger & Chadwick to represent Ms. Bennett."
"What happened to Terri Bennett is an outrage," said ProEnglish Executive Director Robert Vandervoort in a statement. "For simply seeking a classroom environment where she can learn in English, Terri was harshly treated by the PCC administration, viciously insulted, and punished with a nine-month suspension."
Citing "federal law protecting student privacy" and the ongoing legal process, Pima Community College declined to give a detailed comment about the case.
"The college denies that any of Ms. Bennett's legal rights were violated and denies that the lawsuit has any basis," a spokesperson said.
Pima Community College says it also conducts reviews and takes appropriate corrective action when there are concerns about negative conduct.
"We are confident the evidence will demonstrate that the college acted appropriately with respect to Ms. Bennett's situation," the spokesperson said.
Tucson, pop. 550,000, is 41.6 percent Hispanic and 47.2 percent "white alone," according to City-data.com.
Pima Community College has six campuses with a total student population of 33,000, according to its website. Of those, 9,535 are full time students. Its 2013 "Student Characteristics Report" states that 38 percent of students are "Latino/Hispanic." The school had about 27,000 students in the spring 2013.
Tucson has been the scene of vicious political fighting between English-only groups and Chicanos, including a widely publicized dispute over whether it was appropriate, or even legal, to teach Chicano history in public schools.
Jared Lee Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13 in January 2011, including then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, had been suspended from Pima Community College for bizarre and threatening behavior.