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Call for Ban on Teachers With Accents Produces Debate on Bigotry

July 4, 1992

WESTFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ A debate over bigotry has been generated by a petition in this melting-pot industrial city calling for a ban on first- and second-grade teachers with pronounced accents.

The city school board has not taken up the petition, signed by 403 residents last week. Mayor George Varelas, a Greek immigrant who speaks English with an accent, said he sees the signers’ point.

″Persons like myself, and I cannot be confused with someone from Boston or Alabama, should not be in a self-contained classroom for a full year teaching 5- and 6-year-olds the multitude of phonetic differences that exist in the English language,″ he said.

″I would only impart my confusion and give them my defects in terms of language.″

Varelas said he has fielded scores of telephone calls from every region of the country. Some callers agreed with state Education Secretary Piedad Robertson, a native of Cuba and a former kindergarten teacher who said the petition ″fostered bigotry,″ but most callers supported the petition, the mayor said.

Varelas and many signers, including parents of children in the city’s Spanish and other bilingual programs, said they mean no disrespect to ethnic groups.

The school board has not yet taken up the matter.

The petition calls for no teacher assigned to first or second grades ″who is not thoroughly proficient in the English language in terms of grammar, syntax, and - most important - the accepted and standardized use of pronunciation.″

The state attorney general’s office said in an opinion that excluding teachers with accents is a violation of state antidiscrimination laws.

Concerns about how teachers speak have been around since the influx of immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s, said Meyer Weinberg, an education historian. Most states dropped speech tests from licensing exams, he said.

″Kids are amazingly resilient to the teaching of standard English,″ said Walt Wolfram of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. ″Adults, including teachers and parents, don’t have nearly as much influence as people think.″

The controversy began when a school official raised the prospect that bilingual teachers would be reassigned to regular classrooms. Brian Whitten and his wife, who is Spanish and Portuguese, said their son has reading problems and they were concerned about him getting a teacher with an accent.

Gwendolyn Gregory, a lawyer for the National School Boards Association, said a ban could run afoul of federal civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, and the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection for everyone under the law.

″They’d have to have some evidence that ... that is an educationally sound prohibition,″ Gregory said. ″I think it would be difficult to do that.″

Westfield is a town of 36,000 people in western Massachusetts.