‘This was wrong,’ says Denver schools chief of email threat to immigrant teachers

Less than three weeks into her tenure as Denver schools superintendent, Susana Cordova stood in the lobby of the district’s downtown headquarters Friday afternoon and apologized.

Ringed by television cameras, Cordova said she was shocked the evening before to learn that a district human resources employee had sent an email to schools on Tuesday that said immigrant teachers working in Denver Public Schools on visas would be reported to immigration authorities if they participated in an impending teacher strike.

“This was wrong,” said Cordova, flanked by three Denver school board members. “I cannot begin to express how shocked I was to learn of this message, and how deeply sorry I am for the anxiety and fear this has caused our educators, our families, and our community.”

The district will not report to authorities the names of any employees who walk off the job, Cordova said. Of the district’s approximately 5,600 educators, 128 of them are here on H-1B and J-1 immigrant visas, a district spokesperson said.

Immigrant educators have the right to participate in a strike, Cordova emphasized. “They can exercise that right without fear that they will be reported to immigration,” she said.

The email, which was leaked on social media, sparked admonishment from teachers, parents, community leaders — and even Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. The mayor took to Facebook Friday morning to say the message, even if it was a mistake, was “unconscionable.”

“DPS must take immediate and corrective action,” he wrote.

No employees were put on leave as a result of the email, Cordova said. The district is taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again, she said. She did not elaborate on what they are.

The email was particularly jarring in a school district with a large number of immigrant students whose school board has passed numerous resolutions vowing to create a welcoming environment and protect students from heavy-handed immigration enforcement.

The Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial justice organization that shared the email on Facebook, wrote: “If DPS claims to want to welcome and protect their immigrant students, why are they lying to and intimidating their immigrant teachers about their right to strike?”

People also took to Twitter to condemn the district.

“How do you ‘erroneously’ send out a letter threatening your immigrant staff?” tweeted one person. “Straight thuggery.”

“I work with teachers that received this threatening email,” tweeted another. “Sickening.”

Shelley Flanagan, a reading intervention teacher at Valdez Elementary, a dual language school, said several of her colleagues took the district at face value that they could not strike.

“They believed what they were told,” she said. “We believed what we were told.”

All of this comes at a time when tensions between the community and Denver Public Schools, which have long been strained, are particularly high. The Denver teachers union voted earlier this week to strike after teacher pay negotiations with the district fell apart.

The strike is temporarily on hold while Colorado Gov. Jared Polis weighs whether to grant the district’s request for state officials to try to broker a deal between the two sides.

In the lobby Friday, Cordova tried to explain what led to the erroneous email being sent. In preparing for a potential teacher strike, she said district officials asked a law firm specializing in immigrant visas whether a strike might have negative impacts on immigrant teachers, “and how we could take the appropriate steps to protect them if they choose to strike.”

The law firm advised the district it would have to notify the U.S. Department of Labor of the strike. That message was “misinterpreted” by human resources staff, said Cordova. She added that she doesn’t think there was any “malicious intent” behind the email, though the employee who sent it did not follow the district protocol for such communications.

Denver Public Schools is a diverse urban district with about 93,000 students. Roughly 70,000 of them are students of color, with more than 50,000 students identifying as Hispanic.

Cordova acknowledged that the threat expressed in the email, even if erroneous, has damaged trust between the immigrant community and the district. The superintendent said she is “fully committed” to working to repair that trust.

She also pointed to several recent actions the district has taken to support immigrant students and families. Shortly after President Trump was elected in November 2016, the district assured families worried about heightened immigration enforcement that it would not share students’ immigration status with federal authorities. In early 2018, the Denver school board passed a resolution pledging to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with undocumented students.

Denver Public Schools was also the first school district in the country to hire educators granted work permits and exemption from deportation through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known colloquially as DACA.

“As a school district, we have been resolute in our opposition to sharing any information that could negatively impact the rights of our immigrant populations,” Cordova said. “Sharing such information would run directly counter to our core beliefs.”

Her comments were echoed by the three school board members in attendance: Lisa Flores, Jennifer Bacon, and Barbara O’Brien, who is vice president of the board.

“We do not believe in intimidation,” Bacon said, “and we do not believe in discrimination.”