Most of the time, 16-year-old Zach Rubio converses in clear, unaccented American teen-speak, a form of English in which the three most common words are "like," "whatever" and "totally." But Zach is also fluent in his dad's native language, Spanish -- and that's what got him suspended from school.
"It was, like, totally not in the classroom," the high school junior said, recalling the infraction. "We were in the, like, hall or whatever, on restroom break. This kid I know, he's like, 'Me prestas un dolar?' ['Will you lend me a dollar?'] Well, he asked in Spanish; it just seemed natural to answer that way. So I'm like, 'No problema.' "
But that conversation turned out to be a big problem for the staff at the Endeavor Alternative School, a small public high school in an ethnically mixed blue-collar neighborhood. A teacher who overheard the two boys sent Zach to the office, where Principal Jennifer Watts ordered him to call his father and leave the school.
Watts, whom students describe as a disciplinarian, said she can't discuss the case. But in a written "discipline referral" explaining her decision to suspend Zach for 11/2 days, she noted: "This is not the first time we have [asked] Zach and others to not speak Spanish at school."
Since then, the suspension of Zach Rubio has become the talk of the town in both English and Spanish newspapers and radio shows. The school district has officially rescinded his punishment and said that speaking a foreign language is not grounds for suspension. Meanwhile, the Rubio family has retained a lawyer, who says a civil rights lawsuit may be in the offing.
The tension here surrounding that brief exchange in a high school hall reflects a broader national debate over the language Americans should speak amid a wave of Hispanic immigration.
The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, says that 20 percent of the U.S. school-age population is Latino. For half of those Latino students, the native language is Spanish.
Conflicts are bursting out nationwide over bilingual education, "English-only" laws, Spanish-language publications and advertising, and other linguistic collisions. Language concerns have been a key aspect of the growing political movement to reduce immigration.
"There's a lot of backlash against the increasing Hispanic population," said D.C. school board member Victor A. Reinoso. "We've seen some of it in the D.C. schools. You see it in some cities, where people complain that their tax money shouldn't be used to print public notices in Spanish. And there have been cases where schools want to ban foreign languages."
Some advocates of an English-only policy in U.S. schools say that it is particularly important for students from immigrant families to use the nation's dominant language.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) made that point this summer when he vetoed a bill authorizing various academic subjects to be tested in Spanish in the state's public schools. "As an immigrant," the Austrian-born governor said, "I know the importance of mastering English as quickly and as comprehensively as possible."
Hispanic groups generally agree with that, but they emphasize the value of a multilingual citizenry. "A fully bilingual young man like Zach Rubio should be considered an asset to the community," said Janet Murguia, national president of La Raza.
The influx of immigrants has reached every corner of the country -- even here in Kansas City, which is about as far as a U.S. town can be from a border. Along Southwest Boulevard, a main street through some of the older neighborhoods, there are blocks where almost every shop and restaurant has signs written in Spanish.
"Most people, they don't care where you're from," said Zach's father, Lorenzo Rubio, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, who has lived in Kansas City for a quarter-century. "But sometimes, when they hear my accent, I get this, sort of, 'Why don't you go back home?' "
Rubio, a U.S. citizen, credits U.S. immigration law for his decision to fight his son's suspension.
"You can't just walk in and become a citizen," he said. "They make you take this government test. I studied for that test, and I learned that in America, they can't punish you unless you violate a written policy."
Rubio said he remembered that lesson on Nov. 28, when he received a call from Endeavor Alternative saying his son had been suspended.
"So I went to the principal and said, 'My son, he's not suspended for fighting, right? He's not suspended for disrespecting anyone. He's suspended for speaking Spanish in the hall?' So I asked her to show me the written policy about that. But they didn't have" one.
Rubio then called the superintendent of the Turner Unified School District, which operates the school. The district immediately rescinded Zach's suspension, local media reported. The superintendent did not respond to several requests to comment for this article.
Since then, the issue of speaking Spanish in the hall has not been raised at the school, Zach said. "I know it would be, like, disruptive if I answered in Spanish in the classroom. I totally don't do that. But outside of class now, the teachers are like, 'Whatever.' "
For Zach's father, and for the Hispanic organizations that have expressed concern, the suspension is not a closed case. "Obviously they've violated his civil rights," said Chuck Chionuma, a lawyer in Kansas City, Mo., who is representing the Rubio family. "We're studying what form of legal redress will correct the situation."
Said Rubio: "I'm mainly doing this for other Mexican families, where the legal status is kind of shaky and they are afraid to speak up. Punished for speaking Spanish? Somebody has to stand up and say: This is wrong."