words matter

Aurora school board member facing criticism for comments about immigrants: “We have rules for a reason”

A classroom at the Edna and John W. Mosley P-8 in Aurora. (Photo by Anya Semenoff, The Denver Post)

Facing criticism for her recent comments about immigrants, an Aurora school board member Tuesday offered a lengthy, emotional response that emphasized the importance of following rules and included an assurance that she wants students to feel safe.

Last month, board member Cathy Wildman expressed concern about a school board resolution supporting immigrant students and families. She called it unnecessary and argued that it singled out a group of students she called rule-breakers.

Although Wildman ultimately joined her colleagues in approving the resolution, her comments have come under fire from education reform groups doing work in Aurora and others.

On Tuesday, Wildman spoke at length about her thinking, making references to the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence. She said that she, too, is an immigrant. More than once, the school board president interrupted Wildman to ask her to speed up.

“I’m a rule follower,” Wildman said Tuesday. “I obey the rules and the laws. This morning I noticed how many rules I followed as I went to the gym. We have rules for a reason.”

Wildman, a former teacher, said her goal “is that all students feel safe and included,” Wildman said. “When I go back to the meeting in question, I wanted people to recognize that we have policies in place. In no way did I ever say immigrants are not welcome.”

The resolution was drafted by parents, students and community members who asked the board to pass it to help them feel safer in the wake of concern about heightened immigration enforcement. More than 82 percent of Aurora’s students are students of color, and the city has a large population of refugees and immigrants.

“I guess I feel that we are setting aside or creating additional rules and policies in some ways for people who broke the rules,” Wildman said last month. “When you talk about safety with people that have come across, they have made it unsafe.”

Cathy Wildman

Parents at that board meeting called the comments rude.

In the following days, the pro-education reform group A-Plus Colorado published a blog post criticizing Wildman and calling on her to connect with the communities she represents. The co-founder of a conservative education reform group, Ready Colorado, published an editorial in the Aurora Sentinel calling on her to resign.

On Tuesday, two students and one Aurora resident spoke during public comment to criticize Wildman’s comments.

“I want to say don’t be scared of immigrants and refugees because they are just humans like us,” said Vestine Niyonkuru, a sophomore at Aurora Central High School. “We are not wild animals.”

Niyonkuru called out the board for not speaking up.

“Why don’t you speak up when one of your board members says something negative?” Niyonkuru said. “Don’t stay quiet. Speak up.”

Kristen Pough, an Aurora resident and graduate of Aurora Central High School, told Wildman during public comment that her comments added to a “dangerous narrative that fuels hate.”

Pough asked that the board receive diversity and sensitivity training.

Following the meeting’s public comment period, Wildman read her statement.

After listening to Wildman’s response, Pough said she didn’t believe there was an apology.

“I just didn’t feel that was a sincere response,” Pough said. “I just saw her say, ‘I’m a great citizen because I do x, y and z,’ and not really apologizing.”

When asked by Chalkbeat about the comments and the requests the community is making of her, Wildman referred to her statement and declined further comment.

Wildman was reelected to a second term on the school board in 2015 to serve through 2019.

The Aurora teachers union, which backed Wildman’s reelection, released a statement in response to her comments and the subsequent criticism.

“As educators, we are leaders who work tirelessly to end racial and economic injustice and will not condone insensitive remarks about race or prejudice,” it stated. “We here at the Aurora Education Association believe in diversity, inclusion and equity and believe that every child, no matter their race, their religion or their address deserves a world class public education.”


Trump administration says DACA protections will stay for now — a temporary win for undocumented educators, students

Teach For America's DACAmented corps at its 2016 convening

The Trump administration said “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, will remain protected for now — a short-term win for educators who had entered the classroom thanks to the new protections and for students worried about deportation and losing a path into the workforce.

Although the ultimate fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, is unclear, a fact sheet posted by Department of Homeland Security says recipients of the program will “continue to be eligible” for renewal and that “no work permits will be terminated prior to their current expiration dates.”

Nearly 1.5 million people had requested to participate in DACA by the end of 2016, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The decision to keep DACA comes after multiple petitions from schools chiefs and education leaders across the country asking for the protections established during the Obama administration to continue. The program has allowed some undocumented people to become educators, including through Teach for America, which has developed a support program for them. (Read more about that program here.) Some teachers who earned work permits under the program now have a path to citizenship, too.

In Colorado, one of TFA’s “DACAmented” teachers said the program put her in position to help other Hispanic students and families.

“This is the first time in a classroom where I can have a conversation about race and immigration without feeling sick to my stomach,” one student told her.

The decision also comes alongside news that the Trump administration is rescinding another Obama-era program granting citizenship to parents whose children are citizens or residents of the U.S., commonly referred to as DAPA. A 2014 report estimated that up to 3.6 million unauthorized immigrants were eligible for protections from deportation and entry into the workforce under DAPA.

Seeking distance

Aurora school board: Judge us by our actions, not one board member’s words

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board sought to convey Thursday that the controversial statements of one of its members should not overshadow the board’s actions to support immigrant and refugee families.

Board president Amber Drevon sent a statement to reporters trying to shift attention back to a board resolution last month that underscored district policies about responding to immigration enforcement actions and emphasized “inclusive practices.”

The resolution was meant to allay fears in immigrant communities. Although the vote for the resolution was unanimous, board member Cathy Wildman’s remarks during the board’s deliberations continue to cause challenges for the school district.

Widlman at that meeting called the resolution unnecessary and argued that it singled out a group of students she called rule-breakers. After being criticized by education reform groups and speakers at this week’s school board meeting, Wildman read a lengthy statement that emphasized the importance of following rules and included an assurance that she wants students to feel safe. She declined to answer questions from Chalkbeat at the meeting.

Here is the full text of the statement Drevon shared, which she said in an email was on behalf of the board:

“The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education values holding open conversations with our community. The Board is comprised of individual members who are entitled to voice their own opinions. We voted unanimously on May 16, 2017 to pass ‘A Resolution to Reaffirm Aurora Public Schools’ Inclusive Practices and Beliefs for all Students Regardless of Documentation Status.’ The vote and text of the resolution, not the comments of any one member, speak to the Board’s commitment to upholding the policies, core beliefs and practices already in place to support our immigrant and refugee families. Our focus remains on providing the best educational opportunities for every APS student.”