Assistant secretary of education accepts Olivarez award
By ERIN PIROUTEK
Associate News Editor
If we were an ideal country we wouldn't have to worry about equal education opportunity, said Norma Cantú, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, as she received the Graciela Olivarez Award Saturday. The prize honors the first female graduate of Notre Dame Law School.
Cantú's office uses federal civil rights statutes to give people opportunities they deserve regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age.
Even today, 46 years after Brown v. the Board of Education, some schools do not treat students equally.
"We still have discrimination in America," Cantú said.
One day a woman called crying, Cantú recalled. She was homeless, and school administrators, who were white, refused to enroll her African-American son because she did not have a permanent address in the district. Cantú's office got the boy enrolled that day.
Cantú described a woman who couldn't graduate with her high school class because the graduation ceremony was in a wheelchair-inaccessible room. The school wanted to mail the student her diploma. Cantú's office arranged to have a ramp built so the woman could join her class.
Another woman was concerned when administrator placed her daughter in the most remedial special education class.
"She didn't think her daughter was dumb," Cantú said. The Department of Education learned that the girl didn't speak any English. Cantú's office helped her receive language instruction and several years later, the girl was taking high school courses for gifted students.
Cantú's office also deals with broad educational policies and she urged the audience, comprised mainly of law students, to consider joining the public service sector.
"The Department of Education is going to need some help to get the word out that there's a new way of doing business in America," Cantú said. "I'm looking for a few good leaders."
She also paid tribute to Olivarez, the award's namesake.
"In her short life she did so much to serve as an example for all of us," Cantú said.
Olivarez was not only the first female to graduate from the law school, she was also the first Latina graduate. Each year, the Hispanic Law Student Assoc-iation (HLSA) honors a Hispanic judge or lawyer in her name.
A chance meeting led Olivarez, a civil rights activist, to Notre Dame.
On a plane back from a civil rights rally, she happened to sit next to Father Theodore Hesburgh, University president emeritus. He was impressed with her accomplishments and asked her to come to the Notre Dame Law School, explained Rudy Monterrosa, vice president of the HLSA. Olivarez, however, was a high school dropout.
"We all know that Father Hesburgh has an amazing way of making things happen," Monterrosa said. Olivarez took the LSAT, did well and was subsequently admitted.
After graduation, she continued to work for civil rights and spoke out against poverty and abortion.
"Graciela was a person who would never be silenced," Cantú said.
All News Stories for Monday, April 3, 2000