An Arizona college is being sued for labeling a student a “bigot” and punishing her with a long-term suspension after she requested that English be used in her nursing studies class so she could learn the subject.
The action was filed against Pima Community College on behalf of student Terri Bennett, who alleged that school officials created a “learning environment [that] was hostile to her as an English-language speaker.”
The complaint alleges that Bennett repeatedly was thwarted in her work listening to lectures, finishing group studies and participating in skills labs, clinicals and other learning activities by fellow students who spoke Spanish, which she did not understand. Study groups and labs in which she participated, an essential part of her nursing training, were being conducted in Spanish.
In response, she asked the college – which operates, ironically, under Arizona’s English-only legal requirement – to help enforce the use of English in her class so she could continue to pursue her educational goals. However, according to the complaint, Bennett was targeted by the school with ridicule, attacks, threats and, eventually, a nine-month suspension.
The group ProEnglish is helping Bennett with legal support.
“What happened to Terri Bennett is an outrage,” said ProEnglish Executive Director Robert Vandervoort. “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.
“This school should be known as ‘Politically Correct College,’” said Vandervoort, whose organization advocates for the use of English as a unifying factor. “We look forward to bringing justice for Terri and making sure other students are allowed to learn in English.”
Paul Schwalback, public information manager for the tax-supported institution, sent a college-approved statement on the case to WND.
“Due to federal law protecting student privacy, Pima Community College is not able to comment specifically about Terri Bennett’s situation,” it started.
But the college did talk about the case, explaining, “We are confident the evidence will demonstrate that the college acted appropriately with respect to Ms. Bennett’s situation.”
PCC also touted its “positive learning environment for all students” and efforts to hold “students and employees accountable to those standards.”
“While the legal process is pending, we do not believe it would be appropriate to make a detailed statement about the allegations in the lawsuit,” the statement concluded.
ProEnglish explained that after Bennett asked for English usage in her class, “school administrators called Ms. Bennett a ‘bigot,’ and she received a nine-month suspension.”
“Ms. Bennett reached out to ProEnglish for assistance in May as PCC took these actions against her. ProEnglish contacted the Arizona law firm of Munger & Chadwick to represent Ms. Bennett. On July 8, 2013, the school was served with a complaint from Ms. Bennett through her attorneys, seeking administrative review,” ProEnglish said.
The court complaint, dated Monday, alleges violations of the Arizona Constitution and the First Amendment as well as unlawful suspension, defamation, violation of the right to privacy and false light, discrimination, retaliation, harassment, breach of contract, breach of duty of good faith and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“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 impeded Ms. Bennett’s ability to concentrate, focus, listen to the lecture and participate in group studies, skills labs, clinicals, and other learning activities,” the complaint alleges.
Within weeks, there was an “interaction” between Spanish-speaking students and non-Spanish-speaking students in class “in which the Spanish speakers were asked not to speak in Spanish in front of the non-Spanish speakers.”
“The Spanish-speaking group of students laughed and mocked Ms. Bennett and the other non-Spanish speakers,” the complaint notes.
Eventually, she complained to the school and in a meeting with David Kutzler, the director of the nursing program.
Kutzler accused 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, the complaint says.
He accused Bennett of being a “bigot and a b**ch” and warned, “you do not want to go down that road.”
She persisted in expressing her concerns, contacting the student services coordinator, who set up a meeting in which she was accused of discrimination. Another meeting was to follow, with a dean, but the dean canceled it.
“Then on Monday morning, April 22, 2013, Ms. Bennett arrived on campus. … She immediately noticed Mr. Kutzler running from his car into the Nursing Office building. She also noticed there were several law enforcement vehicles in the parking lot. … As Ms. Bennett entered the building, she was approached by a man who identified himself as head of PCC security, and who requested whether she was Terri Bennett and requested her to show her identity card, which Ms. Bennett did. … Ms. Bennett was given a sealed envelope, informed that she was immediately suspended from PCC, and instructed to leave campus immediately. … Upon information and belief, a police vehicle followed her to the freeway. Mr. Kutzler sent an email to PCC staff advising them that they were not allowed to talk to Ms. Bennett.”
The case says Bennett was humiliated, shamed and afraid because of the encounter.
One part of the sealed letter accused her of presenting “an unreasonable risk of danger to yourself and/or others or … your presence on college property poses a significant risk of disruption of education activities.”
Her punishment was the 9-month suspension.
However, the lawsuit notes that the school offered no reasons for the charges.
A second part of the sealed letter accused her of engaging in discriminatory conduct, disrupting class and “harrassing (sic) Mexican-American students in your class with inappropriate remarks about their heritage.”
The lawsuit notes that the state constitution dictates that “the English language is the official language of the state of Arizona, and a representative of government is obliged to preserve, protect and enhance the role of the English language, as well as not discriminate against any person or in any way penalize any person because the person uses or attempts to use or wishes to use the English language.”
Bennett’s representatives told local media outlets they likely would seek damages amounting to six figures.