Teacher Letter to Ariz. Lawmaker Leads to Inquiry

NPR, March 23, 2011

A metropolitan Phoenix school district has launched an inquiry into a substitute teacher who wrote a letter that portrayed Hispanic students in a harsh light and was read aloud last week at the Arizona Legislature during a debate on an immigration bill.

The Glendale Elementary School District said it has determined that some statements by teacher Tony Hill in his letter to Senate President Russell Pearce were inaccurate.

In the letter, Hill said a majority of the eighth-graders he had recently taught at a Glendale school had refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance and declared that Americans had stolen their land. Hill also wrote that while substitute teaching in the area, he came to believe that “most of the Hispanic students do not want to be educated but rather (want to) be gang members and gangsters.”

The letter quickly inflamed the immigration debate in Arizona. A Republican in the Legislature read the letter on the Senate floor during the immigration debate. Democrats expressed suspicion that it was a hoax that had no place in the public debate on immigration.

District spokesman Jim Cummings said all students questioned in the inquiry have said everyone stood for the pledge and that none said their land had been stolen. “What we are finding here–and what we believe–is that the statements that he made weren’t accurate,” Cummings said.

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The district believes the instance that Hill referred to in his letter came during his March 8 stint teaching reading, writing and social studies at Harold W. Smith Elementary School in Glendale.

Substitutes are required to fill out a report after their teaching stint, and Hill made no reference in the form to the Pledge of Allegiance or land claims made in the letter. He did state that students “refused to act proper” but didn’t provide specifics in that category or in the section about “inappropriate behavior.”

The letter was the subject of heated exchanges on the Senate floor Wednesday as Pearce refused to apologize.

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Pearce said no one from the Senate owes an apology for reading the letter. “It was all verified,” Pearce said. “I’m disappointed that we assault and attack a teacher for speaking out.”

He said the letter wasn’t about Hispanics, but rather was about what went on in a classroom where students were disruptive.

In an interview after the debate, Republican Sen. Lori Klein, who read the letter aloud on the Senate floor last week, said she didn’t regret bringing to light a teacher’s experience, but that she doesn’t believe all Hispanic students want to be gang members.

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The district had said earlier this week that it had no record of a Tony Hill or Anthony Hill working as a substitute. But Cummings said Wednesday that a closer inspection of records showed that Hill worked as a substitute teacher in the district for nine days this school year as an employee for a temporary service that provides teachers when the district’s regular fill-ins aren’t available.

Since Hill isn’t a district employee, any discipline against Hill would be left up to the temporary service, Cummings said, noting though that he doubts any of the district’s principals would be comfortable having him as a substitute at their schools.

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[An earlier story about this letter can be read here.]

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