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Updated Jul 15, 2013, 5:06 pm Originally posted Jul 15, 2013, 1:28 pm
A lawsuit alleging that a Pima Community College student was unfairly suspended for objecting to others speaking Spanish in class is being supported by a longtime spokesman for white nationalist and anti-immigration groups. Atlanta-based Phil Kent has joined with Tucson attorney and GOP activist John Munger to back the claims of PCC nursing student Terri Bennett.
Munger and Kent laid out Bennett's claims during a press conference Monday (see video), saying they will eventually seek a six-figure claim against the college.
A college representative said the claims are "entirely without merit."
PCC "denies that any of Ms. Bennett's legal rights were violated and denies that the lawsuit has any basis," said PCC spokesman C.J. Karamargin in an email Monday.
A lawsuit, along with an appeal of a college administrative decision, filed in Bennett's name alleges she was unfairly targeted by PCC officials, and suspended from classes at PCC's Desert Vista campus on the South Side because she contended that other students speaking Spanish during class "was hostile to her as an English speaker."
The filings claim Bennett "was disrupted by students who spoke during the lessons, often in Spanish. Ms. Bennett believes some students were translating the lessons into Spanish for students who were not able to speak English."
"Terri does not speak any language but English," Munger said Monday morning. "Students sitting in front of her or around her in class were repeatedly discussing back in forth — in a foreign language I think was Spanish — the instructor's lectures."
That was "extremely disruptive to her," Munger said.
"The teachers were teaching in English. But ... a large proportion of these classes ... consisted of study groups, labs and clinicals (where Spanish was used by other students)," Munger said.
Bennett, 50, declined to discuss the specifics of her claims, referring questions to Munger. "I want back in college," she said.
Bennett has taken various courses at PCC since 2000, and had been in the college's nursing program for two years, Munger said.
PCC officials said that student-privacy laws mean they are "not able to comment specifically about Terri Bennett's situation."
"This suit is entirely without merit," Karamargin said in a phone interview Friday.
In an email, Karamargin said, "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."
From Karamargin's email:
The College maintains standards to promote a positive learning environment for all its students and holds students and employees accountable to those standards. The College takes very seriously concerns expressed about conduct that negatively impacts the learning environment. When this type of concern arises, the College conducts a review and, when necessary, takes appropriate corrective action. We are confident the evidence will demonstrate that the College acted appropriately with respect to Ms. Bennett's situation.
PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert also declined to comment on the specifics of Bennett's claims. The emailed statement "reflects our commitment to creating a positive learning environment for our students," he said Friday.
While PCC officials said they couldn't provide further information, the filings outline Bennett's account of how administrators handled her suspension.
According to the filings, after Bennett complained in March about students speaking Spanish, she met with a series of PCC administrators, who discounted her claims.
PCC officials told Bennett she was being suspended because she argued with an instructor about a test answer, complained about students speaking Spanish in and out of class, and displayed intimidating behavior toward students, staff and faculty, the filings said.
Munger declined to provide copies of the documents from PCC referenced in the filings, saying they would be filed with the court "in due course."
Bennett's claim said that the coordinator of PCC's nursing program, David Kutzler, called her a "bigot and a bitch," and accused her of "discriminating against Mexican-Americans."
Bennett met with Dr. Ann Parker, Pima's vice president of Student Development, on April 4, and was told on April 22 by PCC police that she was suspended immediately and asked to leave the campus, the filings said.
Bennett was "physically confronted by six armed police officers when she arrived on campus ... handed her suspension papers and ordered to leave the campus under threat of armed force," Munger said.
On April 29, Parker issued "findings and determinations" that Bennett was suspending for arguing with an instructor, complaining about Spanish speaking and intimidating behavior, the claims said.
According to the filing, Parker told Bennett that she was suspended "until she receives counseling to improve her communication style and to learn to be less abrasive with students and instructors."
Munger — a former Republican national committeeman who unsuccessfully sought the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination — also claimed that Bennett may be unable to receive financial aid in the the future because "Pima College has caused Terri's federal financial aid to be terminated."
Karamargin said he was unable to provide information on the reasons for Bennett's suspension, or confirm that she had been asked to leave the school.
Speaking generally about financial aid, Karamargin said, "if a student is not enrolled in an educational institution, they are not eligible for financial aid. If they were enrolled in another educational institution, they are able to get financial aid as long as they are not in default."
Bennett filed an appeal asking a judge to reverse her suspension on June 21, but not PCC was not served with that claim until last Monday; Karamargin was not aware of the claim until asked about it by TucsonSentinel.com on Thursday.
Monday morning, Munger filed a lawsuit over Bennett's claims. He said that suit will eventually be amended to seek "six figures" in damages. Bennett will proceed with both the appeal of Pima's suspension and the lawsuit, he said.
Munger alternately referred to Bennett having been suspended and expelled from the school. According to Karamargin, suspensions from PCC "are for a set term" and "involve a breach of the student code of conduct." Expulsions from the school are permanent.
Suspensions from Pima are rare, Karamargin said, "no more than one or two per semester" from among the school's 27,000 students, and are imposted after a "rigorous process" in which the student is "afforded due process."
Karamargin declined to comment Monday on whether Bennett had been suspended, but the court filings indicated that she was suspended through the fall term.
ProEnglish group backs case against classroom Spanish
Phil Kent, an Atlanta-based spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-area group ProEnglish, announced Thursday that the lobbying group is "assisting" with the case. Munger said in an email that the group is partially funding the lawsuit.
Kent, representing the organization that bills itself as "the nation's leading English language advocates (sic)," appeared in Tucson on Monday.
"It's a sad day that we're here filing this suit in Arizona, it's a sad day in the United States of America, for this woman to be persecuted and insulted, discriminated against," Kent said, wearing a tie featuring the Confederate Stars and Bars.
"It is outrageous how Ms. Bennett has been mistreated and discriminated against by Pima County Community College based on her cultural background as an English speaker," Kent wrote last week, announcing ProEnglish's backing of Bennett's suit.
"We are on the lookout for cases like Terri Bennett's," said Kent, a former spokesman for the noted segregationist U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. "The college has not advertised itself as a multilingual university. They should be having English in the classroom."
ProEnglish was founded in 1994 by John Tanton, who has founded and funded a number of organizations — American Patrol, Federation for American Immigration Reform, American Immigration Control Foundation — listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Kent is also the executive director of the American Immigration Control Council, which says its mission is to "educate our fellow citizens on the disastrous effects of uncontrolled immigration."
The liberal watchdog SPLC described one video produced by Kent's group, "Immigration: Making America Less Beautiful?," as a "cornucopia of racist images":
The video depicts a "raging flood" of Latinos, Haitians and other immigrants — "the greatest wave of immigration the world has ever witnessed" — threatening America's "generally European" core with "foreign domination." In the video, Miami is a "Third World nightmare" where "illegal aliens" practice "voodoo" and leave stinking "human waste" in the streets. "America is beautiful," says the narrator. "Why spoil it?"
According to the SPLC, the executive director of ProEnglish, Robert Vandervoort, formerly ran the Chicagoland Friends of American Renaissance, a group of supporters of the work of white supremacist Jared Taylor.
Kent said Monday that Vandervoort was not connected to American Renaissance, and called the SPLC a "extreme left-wing group."
"We're not surprised at the smears," Kent said, saying he was "proudly involved with Americans for Immigration Control."
Kent said the SPLC conducts "character assassination."
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.