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English only — sometimes

The national group that lobbied for Utah's so-called English-only law now is championing students' right to speak other languages at school.

Utah's official language is English, but students can speak Spanish over lunch or say hello in the halls in Swahili if they want to. But some schools apparently have misinterpreted the law, and U.S. English chairman Mauro E. Mujica wants state school bosses to clear the air.

"A good place to begin is to make it clear to Utah educators and other school personnel that the law encourages both English and foreign language instruction, but that it does not interfere with basic rights of free speech on the playground or in the lunchroom," Mujica said in a letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing.

The state school board is supposed to set rules on how foreign languages can be used in schools. "We strongly urge that the board take this responsibility seriously and help to prevent the kinds of unfortunate misinterpretations of the law that have been reported," Mujica wrote.

The State Office of Education is drafting the rules now that a judge has deemed the law constitutional. The rules are expected to be released before the school year ends.

"It's forthcoming. I'm not sure why the lengthy letter. The board has never taken its responsibility anything but seriously," Laing said Thursday. "The state board understood from the beginning that English as the official language initiative did not restrict (schools). That will be reiterated."

Last November Utah voters made English Utah's official language, requiring government to conduct business in English. The law makes exceptions for health and public safety, courts, tourism and schools, among others.

This week, 3rd District Judge Ronald E. Nehring ruled the law is little more than symbolic and won't change the way state and local agencies do business. Government officials and workers may speak any language during the course of business, but only communications in English are "official."

The law also doesn't infringe on people's First Amendment rights. It says so right in the statute.

But that apparently has been misunderstood.

Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Darline Robles has received several complaints that teachers and principals have told children not to talk to each other in languages other than English. She tried to set the record straight in a Jan. 18 letter to principals and reiterated her stand in a Rotary Club speech this week.

Laing praised Robles' move. "Misinterpretations of the law are an anomalous situation . . . misrepresenting the initiative and inappropriately curtailing free speech of students."

This is the second U.S. English correspondence this year regarding Utah schools.

Attorneys for the group are seeking details on a federal investigation into Utah school districts that allegedly are not meeting needs of students learning English. The new "English-only" law says programs for people learning English will be enhanced and encouraged.

Salt Lake City School District is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights because of a complaint. Jordan, Granite, Davis, Cache, Washington and Ogden districts are under a random review and are in various stages of compliance. San Juan District is working with the U.S. Justice Department in meeting requirements.