The head of a Prince George's County Hispanic organization told a County Council committee last week that Hispanic children are often "isolated" in schools and that older residents do not seek out all the services available to them because the county lacks sufficient bilingual staff.
The problem is exacerbated because Hispanics are not given adequate consideration for jobs in county government, charged Norma R. Rivera, president of the Hispanic advocacy group Image of Prince George's and a member of the county's Mental Health Association board.
County officials in interviews last week acknowledged that the county employs a small number of Hispanics but said that hiring more is unlikely because of budget problems. School officials said the county provides a variety of instructional services for Hispanic students.
Rivera told the county's Human Resources Committee that Hispanics compose about 6 percent of the county's population, "and the majority of them are taxpayers in the county. But they do not utilize the general health and mental health facilities in the county because of the language and because of the cultural differences."
Instead, county Hispanics are using District facilities, "which are already overburdened and understaffed," she said.
Senior citizens have particular difficulty because they are unlikely to speak fluent English, she said. Another vulnerable group includes those who are arrested or jailed. She said they often are unable to understand how to get help and how to follow their cases.
Moreover, she said, although Hispanic schoolchildren receive language instruction, they often feel alienated because the schools do not teach an appreciation of other cultures.
"I do see a lot of alienation in this county in particular. I do feel that the county is somewhat backward in its acceptance of differences," said Rivera, a Bowie resident. "The kids become isolated groups in the schools, perhaps because many people have lived here all their lives and have not become open to other cultural groups."
Rivera said Hispanic organizations are not requesting more money for additional staff, but she said the county's personnel system, which emphasizes promotion from within, does not help to increase the number of Hispanic employes.
Rivera also charged that Hispanics seeking county jobs, along with the few already employed, are discriminated against in hiring and promotion.
She cited the case of a 42-year-old public works employe who filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last fall after allegedly being passed over for promotion 11 times during a 10-year period. A hearing on the case was scheduled for this week.
"I just don't think the mentality is to give everyone equal opportunity," Rivera said. "What I'm saying is that practice must comply with policy, and that is not happening."
County personnel officer Carl Harris said in an interview that the county currently employs 26 people (out of a total work force of 3,918) who describe themselves as Hispanic.
Harris said promotion from within "is the basis of any merit system, a good merit system anyway." He added that the county is hiring few employes because of the economy and the county's fiscal problems.
Board of Education spokesman Brian Porter said that, as of a year ago, the board employed 38 people who described themselves as Hispanics, 23 of whom were teachers, out of 12,319 employes. Current figures are unavailable, he said.
According to information supplied by the school board, Hispanic teachers compose 0.4 percent of the teaching force, the same percentage as Asian teachers. Hispanic students compose 1.3 percent of the student population, and Asians 3.1 percent.
Linda Hughes, a resource teacher in the county's English-as-a-second-language program, disagreed that students are alienated within the schools and said the system's "philosophy is against isolation. That's clear from the way we operate our program."
Hughes said 1,357 students who speak nearly 100 languages receive intensive English instruction during only part of the day to allow them to mix with other students for other classes.
At last week's meeting, council member Floyd Wilson recommended that the County Council establish a task force on affirmative action to study personnel policy.
Rivera recommended that county managers be given sensitivity training to make them more aware of prejudices they may have toward minority groups, and that the school system institute programs to make students more appreciative of other cultures existing in Prince George's.