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Lee County School Board member apologizes for statement about Guatemalan students

Posted at 11:23 PM, Sep 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-01 09:14:54-04

UPDATE (10/01/2021 9:15 a.m.) -- The Florida School Boards Association sent us a press release in response to Chris Patricca's statements, saying in part "The Guatemalan community and all underrepresented communities deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by all members of the education community, including their elected representatives. We will continue to work with our members to address issues of inclusivity and equity for all students."

ORIGINAL STORY -- A Lee County School Board member is apologizing for comments she made during a public meeting.

Chris Patricca is also the President of the Florida School Boards Association. She was speaking at the Estero Council of Community Leaders (ECCL) on September 24th when she made remarks about Guatemalan students many found deeply offensive.

We spoke with the Guatemala Maya Center, a non-profit out of Lake Worth, FL, which said Patricca's comments were not only inaccurate, they showed a lack of understanding about a big part of the School District.

As soon as Asst. Executive Director Mariana Blanco listened to the comments in the ECCL meeting, she knew she had to say something.

"It was very clear she was speaking out of ignorance," said Blanco.

Blanco said she was shocked when she heard Patricca describe challenges in teaching Guatemalan students.

"The biggest challenge that those principals are facing is getting them out of the bathroom, because they’ve never seen running water before," said Patricca in the September 24th ECCL meeting.

"To have someone like Ms. Patricca kind of say, oh you know they were so kind of hypnotized by this plumbing system, they were just so amazed by this plumbing system, just really undermines the culture," said Blanco.

Patricca also made comments about the Guatemalan education system that may not have been accurate.

"We also have a huge influx of students from Guatemala, where the formal education system goes through Grade 3," said Patricca during the meeting.

"I don't even know where she got that comment that Guatemalan, school in Guatemala only goes up to the 3rd Grade. I don't know that that really has any formal backing to it," said Blanco.

Blanco also took offense to a later comment, where she said Patricca betrayed a lack of knowledge about Mayan languages.

"They speak Spanish with a Mayan dialect. We don’t have teachers that speak Spanish with a Mayan dialect," said Patricca during the meeting.

"There’s no such thing as Spanish with a Mayan dialect," said Blanco. "She clearly doesn’t recognize that the Maya have 22 languages, and they are recognized as such."

Those comments also got backlash from dozens of people commenting on social media.

We reached out to Patricca, and she responded with a statement, saying “I want to clarify comments I made at a recent community meeting and apologize for being insensitive. I genuinely feel badly that I hurt people’s feelings. I was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the Lee County School Board or the Florida School Boards Association. Individuals hailing from Guatemala are most certainly valued members of our community. I vow to do better now and in the future.”

Blanco said she appreciates the apology, but more steps need to be taken.

"I don’t know that just an apology would suffice. Really she should come to the communities and she should meet some of the students and the families that she’s serving," said Blanco.

Blanco said she’s hoping Patricca will publicly apologize at the School Board meeting next Tuesday.