A San Rafael school trustee who criticized opponents of a proposed bilingual education program is being threatened with a lawsuit by seven people who claim they were unfairly accused of racism.
The group wants trustee Bruce Raful to apologize and resign or face a defamation lawsuit against him and the school district. The matter is the latest twist in a dispute that has rekindled the coals of animosity in a county familiar with anti-immigration controversies.
The dispute revolves around a proposal by San Rafael Superintendent Jeffery Blackwell to establish a Spanish language ”immersion school” patterned after one being run successfully at Buena Vista School in San Francisco’s Mission District.
The plan, first proposed two years ago, called for a kindergarten class, made up of half Spanish- speaking youngsters and half English-speaking, to be taught in Spanish, with English introduced gradually. By the time the students reached the fifth grade, supporters said, all the students would be fully bilingual.
The school board scrapped the proposal Tuesday night on Blackwell’s recommendation after too few parents expressed interest in having their children participate.
The demand for Raful’s resignation came in a letter this week from San Francisco attorney Matthew Pavone, who said he was contacted after Raful was quoted in a local newspaper as saying: ”There is a clear element of racism that is prevalent among certain groups and manifests itself in situations like this. Of all the people who spoke against the proposal (March 18), only one person spoke on academic ground opposing bilingual education. Everyone else spoke on the racial perspective.”
At the March 18 board meeting, feelings ran so high that four San Rafael police officers were called to the meeting to maintain calm.
Pavone, who declined to identify his clients or make public his letter, said he did not know whether those who hired him belong to an organized group. Raful, however, said they are part of a group ”orchestrated by (Rick) Oltman.” Oltman is an outspoken critic of immigration policies and was state chairman of the campaign for Proposition 187, the 1994 state initiative to prohibit education and other public services to illegal immigrants.
Oltman, a San Rafael resident, scoffed at Raful’s assertion. ”I’m not part of the group, but I support them,” he said. ”It’s wrong to spend taxpayer money to teach kids in our schools a language other than English.”
Raful, a 47-year-old real estate appraiser who supports bilingual programs, yesterday dismissed the legal threat as harassment from an ”extreme wing” of political and social conservatives who rally around immigration issues.
”Some of the opponents were well-meaning people with serious questions over bilingual education,” Raful said. ”Then there are the others. They’re not interested in education; they’re interested in creating a forum — an opportunity to put out their point of view. I’m not at all concerned about their threats.”
On Tuesday, the school board shelved the proposal and instead adopted another program designed to help students who do not speak English and are new to this country. Called the newcomers support program, it is to provide special English instruction for one year for second through sixth grade students. It will be an addition to the schools’ existing bilingual programs.
Marin County has been torn by a series of highly charged immigration disputes over the past few years.
In 1994, for instance, a band of 20 customers forced two local supermarkets to dump 40,000 shopping bags that featured the face and sad story of a San Rafael fourth-grader from El Salvador who illegally entered the United States.
The shoppers, saying the boy’s anguished story of escape promoted illegal immigration, threatened to picket or organize a boycott of the stores unless the bags were removed. They were.