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.”
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.”