MILWAUKEE – While the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay has apologized to the Menominee Tribe and the family of a seventh-grader who was punished for using her native language at school, the girl’s mother said Tuesday that she still wants her daughter’s teacher fired.
Tanaes Washinawatok said Julie Gurta, who teaches at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Shawano, did not accept blame for her actions in a letter that was supposed to be an apology.
Washinawatok said her 12-year-old daughter, Miranda, interpreted the words “Hello” and “I love you” and then added how to say “thank you” when talking to two girls in class Jan. 19. She said Gurta overheard and “slammed her hands down on the desk and stated, ‘You are not to speak like that. How do I know you’re not saying something bad? How would you like if I spoke in Polish and you didn’t understand?'”
The girl was benched from a basketball game later that day for having “an attitude problem,” Washinawatok said she was told.
Washinawatok said she met with diocese and school officials, including the teacher, over the past month and they agreed to send apology letters. Washinawatok explained the issue is sensitive because tribal members used to be beaten for speaking their language in the schools, which is part of the reason they are losing their language.
In the mid-1880s, the federal government established boarding schools that prohibited Native American students from acknowledging their culture, including language. Students were punished for using their native languages until the 1960s, and many elders still alive are afraid to teach the languages to children.
Washinawatok received letters from Gurta, assistant basketball coach Billie Jo DuQuaine, principal Dan Minter and the diocese’s director of education, Joseph Bound.
In Gurta’s Feb. 22 letter, she wrote her “firm reactions” were not intended to single out the girl or the language. She said Miranda spoke to her in a disrespectful manner several times that day and had behaved inappropriately on other days as well.
“Unfortunately, the actions of your daughter were not brought to your attention as quickly as they should have been, and for this I apologize,” Gurta wrote.
Washinawatok described the teacher as insensitive and having an “arrogant, narrow-minded way of teaching.” She said she planned to send a certified letter Tuesday to the diocese asking that Gurta be fired.
“I don’t want this to happen to another family or another student,” Washinawatok said.
Bound acknowledged there was a need for cultural diversity training for staff, students and families. Deacon Ray DuBois, spokesman for the diocese, said it was working with a relative of the Washinawatoks to develop a program to use in the school in April or May and possibly other schools after that.
“We ask for your forgiveness for our actions that have inflicted heartache, pain and anger to all those who have felt these emotions over the past several weeks,” Bound wrote. “It is our hope that with this greater awareness, we can begin to repair any harm that has been caused and to be able to build new and improved relationships.”
Washinawatok said the principal told her the coach asked for the girl to be benched, but the coach denied it.
Minter apologized in his letter for any hurt he caused, and DuQuaine apologized for “a breakdown of communication” that led to the girl being benched.
Washinawatok said she didn’t think DuQuaine’s letter was a “proper apology” either, but she was leaving it up to the diocese to pursue any further action.
Messages left at the school for the principal, teacher and assistant coach were not immediately returned. DuBois said the local parish makes hiring decisions, and the diocese has only an advisory role. A message left for parish Pastor Len Evers wasn’t immediately returned Tuesday.
Washinawatok said her daughter is dealing with the situation the best she can, at times shutting down to questions. But she said her daughter is mature and respectable and was bothered by the fact the teacher didn’t ask what she said.
“That was the thing that bothered her the most: the fact that Julie Gurta assumed she was saying something bad,” she said.