safe schools

Aurora school board approves resolution to protect immigrant students, though some raise questions

File photo of rising second-graders at Aurora's Jewell Elementary.

The Aurora school board unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday aimed at helping immigrant students feel safer, but not before fault lines emerged over its title and intent.

The board debated whether the resolution supported all students or just some, and one board member suggested immigrants in other parts of the country were making people feel unsafe.

The resolution, proposed and written by a group of parents and community members, largely reaffirms district policies for dealing with federal immigration enforcement actions.

“We have a legal obligation to serve all students no matter their documentation status,” board member Dan Jorgensen said.

The resolution was spearheaded by RISE Colorado, a local nonprofit. Parents, students and community members who worked to write the resolution spoke to the board at a meeting earlier this month and said they needed to know the district supported them so they could feel a little safer.

“It would send a message that the district is on the side of families,” one mother wrote in a letter that was read to the board.

Students, parents and community members supporting the resolution wore buttons that read, “Keep APS Safe.”

The resolution directs the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

But before voting, school board members discussed the resolution’s title and whether the resolution was for all students.

Aurora school board member Cathy Wildman said Aurora already has enough policies creating safe schools by prohibiting discrimination. She said the resolution was about one group of students, and not really for all students.

“I guess I feel that we are setting aside, or creating additional rules and policies in some ways where people broke the rules,” Wildman said.

She added that some immigrants have made some areas of the country unsafe and said in one instance her nieces traveling to Arizona were told to turn around because it would not be safe for them.

Board member JulieMarie Shepherd argued that the title of the resolution — “A resolution to keep Aurora Public Schools a safe and inclusive school community” — was too broad and made it sound like the resolution helped all students, when it doesn’t, she said.

She gave the example of a gender non-conforming child, saying, “this resolution does nothing to protect them.”

Board member Jorgensen argued that the resolution was for all students, saying that many of the community members who helped write the resolution only did it for the safety of other children, not their own. He added that he wants his own child to be in a school where all children feel safe.

“By serving the kids on the fringe, we serve all our kids,” Jorgensen said.

The final resolution approved was changed to be called “A resolution to reaffirm APS’ inclusive practices and beliefs for all students regardless of documentation status.”

After Tuesday’s vote and discussion, parents said they felt some of the board members’ comments were rude, but said they respected all opinions and said they were happy the resolution still passed.

Districts across the country, including in neighboring Denver, have passed similar resolutions, often with stronger language that specifically prohibits district staff from giving information or cooperating with immigration officials.

A spokeswoman for Denver Public Schools confirmed recently that the district received a request for information in April from federal immigration officials. She could not say more specifically what information was requested, but said the district did not comply.

Aurora’s city council Monday night passed a resolution stating Aurora is not a “sanctuary city,” and that it will comply with all immigration laws. City officials expressed concern about losing federal money after the Trump administration said they would withhold funding from jurisdictions that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated which state Wildman’s nieces were traveling to when, according to her, they were warned about their safety.

Uncharted waters

From passionate to politics-free, here’s how Colorado school districts responded to Trump’s DACA decision

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

Even before the Trump administration announced the rollback of an Obama-era program that provides protections to young undocumented immigrants, Tom Boasberg didn’t hold back.

The longtime Denver Public Schools superintendent fired off one pre-emptive statement saying that ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would “cruelly rip the American dream” from young immigrants’ grasp. He joined other civic leaders for a news conference under the Capitol dome to call for the program’s preservation.

When DACA’s imminent demise was announced Tuesday, the DPS communications staff was ready with a statement, in both English and Spanish, decrying the move as “shortsighted, heartless and harmful.”

In Aurora Public Schools, Superintendent Rico Munn, a lawyer and former head of the State Department of Regulatory Agencies, conferred with staff about a more measured response.

Two days after the Trump White House put DACA on notice, APS emailed the school community a newsletter reiterating district policy about immigration enforcement and linking to a school board resolution passed earlier this year meant to allay community fears. The district statement did not mention DACA, nor was it signed by Munn or anyone personally.

The contrasting responses – from passionate and personal to informational and politics-free – provide a window into how school districts view their responsibilities when a divisive national policy change carries profound implications for many Colorado students and their families.

In Colorado’s urban, suburban and rural areas, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students are attempting to support kids at a trying time without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee. How districts respond hinges on intensely local factors, from the political climate to leadership style and school board makeup.

“This is uncharted waters,” said Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “… It’s incumbent upon all school districts to say ‘This issue is complex, it’s not just legal and illegal.’ And they need to inform their communities about the complexities about dealing with these thorny issues.”

Roughly 800,000 people in the U.S., including nearly 17,300 people in Colorado, are enrolled in DACA. Begun in 2012, the program offers work permits and temporary reprieves from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children.

Trump has given Congress six months to tackle immigration issues broadly before DACA is undone. He also has indicated that he may act on DACA if Congress does not.

Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said leaders of the 92,000-student district felt they had no choice but to speak out.

“The conditions have been thrust on us,” she said Friday.

Cordova added that DPS leaders believe “this is a fundamental moral obligation we have to support our Latino students in general and in particular, take a stance on what we believe is a very misguided, poorly thought-out and detrimental decision.”

Some Denver school principals also spoke out publicly. A group of more than 90 school leaders wrote an opinion piece in The Denver Post calling on Congress to pass the 2017 DREAM Act to provide permanent protections for immigrants.

“Principals have real power in communities,” said author James Cryan, who is founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter school network in Denver and Aurora. The group, he said, wanted to use that power “to stand with folks who, in many cases, … don’t feel safe.”

The Aurora Public Schools statement sought to tamp down concerns about imminent immigration actions and said the “safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our top priority.”

Munn said in an interview that there is no “right response” to news like DACA’s rollback, and that it varies by community. Asked about the more pointed statement from Boasberg and DPS, Munn said neither he nor the district has a track record of putting out such statements.

“We have tried to stay focused on serving our kids and making sure our kids and our families know at a very practical level what the impact is on their lives,” he said. “For us, it’s important not to be a distraction in that communication. In other communities, it makes all the sense in the world to handle it differently depending on how you relate to that community.”

Judith Padilla, an Aurora mother of three, said Friday she didn’t receive the district’s communication on immigration this week, but wishes she had more resources from the schools.

“All of us need more information about what help our schools can or can’t offer us,” Padilla said. “They need to support everyone. I am worried about what’s going to happen.”

Other suburban Denver districts, many of them with large and growing Hispanic populations, also gave a variety of responses.

In Jeffco Public Schools, Superintendent Jason Glass was quick to post on his blog about DACA, striking a tone that falls somewhere between Denver’s and Aurora’s statements.

Glass noted the opportunities DACA provides to undocumented students “who have much to contribute to our community, state, and nation.” He also linked to more information and a “do and don’t list” for educators.

In an email to Chalkbeat, Glass expanded on the district’s strategy, noting that leaders must take into account residents, boards and community values in deciding if and how to engage on issues with political dimensions.

“For Jeffco, that meant reassuring potentially impacted members of our community that our schools remain open and welcoming to them, and that we would monitor and work with our Congressional delegation in an effort to not limit opportunities for our children,” he said. “In other communities, that engagement can mean something else.”

Westminster Public Schools sent an internal communication last week to principals with “key talking points,” and reminders to staff of policy on social media, teaching controversial topics and interactions with immigration officials.

“We do not collect or share information on a student’s legal status and that will not change,” the memo said, echoing the message of many other school districts. “Westminster Public Schools values ethnic and language diversity in our district and we view diversity as a strength.”

Javier Abrego, the superintendent of the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City, put out a more pointed statement — in English and Spanish — on DACA on Wednesday.

“To be sure, the elimination of DACA will not only have a dramatic economic impact on our state and nation, it will have devastating impacts on our schools and communities,” he wrote. “Our community and schools will lose employees, coaches and school support staff. Our educational systems are already in dire need of great support and resources; the elimination of DACA just compounds an already alarming situation.”

Abrego also joined a handful of other superintendents in calling for Congress to act.

In Greeley-Evans School District 6, Superintendent Deirdre Pilch put out a one-paragraph statement Tuesday acknowledging that changes in DACA will “cause worry and concern for some of our students, families and our own staff.” It concluded by encouraging families to voice their concerns to national elected officials and expressing hope that Congress will find a solution.

Earlier this year Pilch was one of several Colorado school and district leaders who signed a letter to federal officials in support of DACA.

But not every district leader felt compelled to speak out about DACA this week.

In St Vrain Valley School District, where 30 percent of the district’s 32,000 students are Hispanic, district officials released no statement or resolution on DACA.

“I don’t know what a piece of paper would do,” said Superintendent Don Haddad. “For us, we don’t change our approach with kids and our community every time a politician says something. We care about our kids 24/7, every day of the week.”

Rural Colorado is far more diverse than most other U.S. rural areas, with significant Latino populations in some areas. Districts there, too, are grappling with responding to DACA.

In the Roaring Fork School District, Superintendent Rob Stein released a one-page statement critical of the DACA announcement on Tuesday — the district’s first day of school.

In a separate letter to district staff and board members, Stein acknowledged that immigrant rights is a political issue and said everyone should make their own choices about how to get involved. “At the same time,” he wrote, “we have a safe haven resolution as a school district that states, in part, ‘We will act where we have influence and make a difference wherever we can.’”

The 1,000-student Lake County school district has yet to send any formal communication about its stance on DACA to parents, said high school principal Ben Cairns. Instead, they’ve deferred to the community’s Latino organizations.

However, the high school is encouraging students to participate in the immigration policy debate. On Tuesday, about two dozen students in three vans traveled to a rally on Denver’s Auraria Campus.

Cairns said he’s aware of potential backlash from other community members but that hasn’t stopped him from supporting the needs of his students.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “But it’s our role to help kids process these big moments in their lives.”

Defending DACA

‘I consider myself American.’ A New York City Dreamer reflects on what losing DACA would mean for him

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
William as a senior in high school

William came to the United States as a child more than a decade ago, and still remembers his first impressions of New York City: towering buildings, modern cars, a jumble of cultures on the crowded sidewalks.

Now 19, he grew up in a remote indigenous village in the mountains of southern Ecuador, where he had limited schooling. His parents emigrated to New York when he was a baby, leaving him with family and friends until he was in elementary school and they could afford to send for him.

“My thought of coming to America was getting a chance to see what was beyond the mountains,” he recalled. “But also finally meeting my parents and living with them.”

William is one of more than 30,000 New Yorkers who benefit from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program for young undocumented immigrants now slated for termination by the Trump administration. His life, like those of many in the program, was thrown into turmoil by Tuesday’s announcement.

William was less than two weeks into his freshman year at a local CUNY college when he heard the news from a fellow student in his international studies class. “I completely lost focus the entire day,” he said. “I was literally crying and having an anxiety attack.”

The DACA decision felt like a betrayal by the president, he said, and reminded him that his future in this country is not assured.

“I’ve grown up here. My friends are here. I consider myself American,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do if I were to be sent back to Ecuador. I’ve lost touch with the culture. I’ve lost most of my family over there.”

William, an only child whose father installs floors and mother is a personal trainer, describes his early years in New York City as a mixture of excitement and fear. He remembers once riding the subway and accidentally sneezing on a police officer. Unable to apologize in English, he stood there mutely, staring up at the angry cop until his mother realized what had happened and spoke on his behalf.

Since her own English was still rudimentary, she sent William to a public library in Queens most days after school, where he was tutored by teenagers and practiced his English with the librarians. His mother suggested that he attend the storytime for younger children so he could hear how words were pronounced.

“I didn’t want to go because there were younger kids who would sit there, literally toddlers,” he said. “Sometimes when they would see me sitting there for storytime, they would laugh.” He felt awful, he said, but it paid off; he was soon fluent in English.

His mother also made sure he didn’t settle for his local high school, pushing him to look beyond his home borough for school. He ended up at Beacon, a selective high school in Hell’s Kitchen. Now aware of his undocumented status, he shared it with people who could help him apply to college — his guidance counselor, for instance — and a nonprofit called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.

“I’d been hiding my identity for such a long time,” he said. “At that moment, starting to reveal my true self was kind of frightening.”

DACA status — which he first received four years ago and will have for nearly two more years under the current guidelines — proved essential. It gave him a social security number, allowing him to get a state I.D. and learner’s permit, apply for a credit card, and find a part-time job at a supermarket. It’s “helped me kind of blend into my American life,” he said.

But it doesn’t open every door. Even with DACA, he explained, can’t study abroad or participate in certain internships. “My classmates have opportunities I don’t have,” he said. “Whenever I think about that, my world kind of breaks down because there’s so many things I’d like to do.”

The fear that fell over him Tuesday was tempered in part by a visit to his college’s immigration center, where he was advised not to panic. For now, his plans to become a diplomat or lawyer are still on track. His DACA status is secure until it expires and his college scholarship through a program for Dreamers is safe for now.

With questions still swirling about the future, he said, the staff at the immigration center was mostly providing emotional support. “They told me that I’m not alone,” William said. “There’s so many other people who are also experiencing the same thing.”

Correction: This story has been updated with William’s mother’s current job.