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Family says teacher told students not to speak Spanish in class


Center: Carroll High School ninth grade student Jennifer Villanueva

Left: Villanueva's mother Maria Del Angel

Right: Villanueva's brother Carlos Valle.

A Carroll High School student and her family members have asked for repercussions and an apology from a teacher who told two students not to speak Spanish in class.

Ninth grade Carroll High School student, Jennifer Villanueva, said in an interview with the Times Herald that CHS teacher Shelley Helmich told her and another student not to speak Spanish in her class while they discussed fruit related to a food and nutrition class project.

The Times Herald authenticated a partial recording of the incident. The recording can be listened to below. Iowa is a one-party consent state, meaning anyone can record oral communications with the consent of just one party.

Villanueva and members of her family say they felt compelled to go public because they say the school district has not taken action against the teacher nor has the teacher apologized.

“The district is aware of the incident in question,” Superintendent Casey Berlau said in a statement to the Times Herald. “Once high school administrators were informed of the situation, they acted promptly and addressed it in accordance with district policy. This included working with the family of the student and the teacher. We want our community to know that we take all student concerns seriously, and address each swiftly and appropriately. We also take seriously the legal requirements that exist for schools to keep student and personnel matters confidential.”

Helmich has not responded to an email request for comment.

In late November, Villanueva was in a food and nutrition class working on a group project. Villanueva said one of her classmates responded in Spanish after Villanueva spoke in English while discussing the project. Villanueva then spoke back to her classmate in Spanish.

“We were just talking about lemons,” Villanueva said. “It was like two or three words that she said to me and I replied with one word.”

That’s when Helmich told the students, “you aren’t allowed to speak Spanish in my classroom,” Villanueva says.

“She just screamed at us to not speak Spanish in her class,” Villanueva said. “Then after that everyone just stayed quiet and they were just staring at us.”

Villanueva said she continued to speak in Spanish to her classmate, but was then called out into the hallway by Helmich. Villanueva recorded audio of the interaction in the hallway with her phone.

“It felt like that was wrong because it’s not rude to speak your language in front of others,” Villanueva said.

Under school board policy and the current student handbook, there is no mention of what language students are allowed or not allowed to speak in school.

Villanueva did not receive detention, but said the incident was embarrassing for her. She then sought out a school guidance counselor and said she was told the situation was likely a misunderstanding. Villanueva said she also told other teachers about the experience.

“They were upset about it too,” Villanueva said.

She also said she’s spoken Spanish in other classes previously, but a teacher never commented on it. Villanueva said she doesn’t know why Helmich reacted negatively to her speaking Spanish.

“There needs to be repercussions for that teacher,” Villanueva’s brother, Carlos Valle, said. “It can’t be something we let slide.”

Villanueva’s mother, Maria Del Angel, said she contacted high school principal Kourtney Abbotts as soon as she found out about the incident.

“We wanted her to apologize right in front of the whole class, just like how she embarrassed her right in front of all of them,” Del Angel said.

Villanueva and members of her family, including Del Angel, met with Abbotts in person about a week after the incident to discuss what happened.

Del Angel said Abbotts apologized for what Villanueva went through and that the school district would investigate the incident. Villanueva said she was then given the option to either remain in the class or be removed and receive credit for the course, to which Villanueva accepted the credit.

Del Angel said she hadn’t received any further communication from the school district by around Christmas, which was when she called the high school principal again for an update. Del Angel said she was told she couldn’t receive an update on the school district’s investigation due to policy, as personnel matters are handled confidentially, and that the school district could not make Helmich apologize in front of the class for the incident.

According to Del Angel, the school district has offered to have another in-person meeting with the family that would include Helmich, but as of this reporting Del Angel has not called to set up the meeting. Del Angel and Valle said they are unsure how another meeting will help.

“If they can’t make her apologize, I don’t see what they will do to her,” Valle said.

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