A group critics describe as racist is backing a lawsuit against Pima Community College on behalf of a Tucson nursing student who claims the college's learning environment "is hostile to English-language speakers."

The Virginia-based group, ProEnglish, supports the lawsuit on its website and is holding a news conference this week. It said in a news release Friday that PCC officials "mistreated and discriminated against" the student, Terri Bennett, when she complained about the problem.

Bennett's lawsuit says she was suspended after telling college officials that she was unable to study properly because Spanish-speaking students chat incessantly and translate out loud for each other during class.

The "talking, interruptions and distractions, all in Spanish" reached the point that "it impeded Ms. Bennett's ability to concentrate, focus, listen to the lecture and do group studies," the lawsuit said.

PCC spokesman C.J. Karamargin said he can't comment on the specifics of the case while it's before the court, but said "we are confident the evidence will demonstrate that the college acted appropriately."

Bennett was suspended in May from PCC's Desert Vista campus, located in a neighborhood heavily populated with native Spanish-speakers. Her lawsuit says one college official called her "a bigot and a bitch" when she complained.

It also says PCC justified the suspension by accusing Bennett of disrupting class and "displaying intimidating behavior to students, faculty and staff."

A few weeks ago, Bennett's lawyer, John Munger of Tucson, filed paperwork in Pima County Superior Court asking a judge to review the college's handling of the matter.

Bennett is seeking to have her suspension overturned, her legal costs covered and an awarding of "further relief as the court may deem just and proper."

Some ProEnglish board members are linked to organizations that critics describe as promoters of racial hatred.

For example, Phil Kent, the ProEnglish spokesman for the PCC lawsuit, also is executive director of the Virginia-based American Immigration Control Foundation. The foundation is listed as an "active U.S. hate group" on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national watchdog group based in Alabama that battles racism and other discrimination.

Another ProEnglish board member, John Tanton, is described by the watchdog group as "the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement" with "many ties to white nationalism."

Kent, the ProEnglish spokesman, dismisses such criticism."They have always hated us and smeared us," he said of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "We just laugh it off and move on."

"We are confident the evidence will demonstrate that the college acted appropriately."

C.J. Karamargin, PCC spokesman

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.