The day after the presidential election, Mark Bailey, director of Durham's Maureen Joy Charter School, greeted worried students as they got off the bus.
"I had kids that morning who were like, 'All the moms and dads have to go back now. Is it true that we're going to be deported?'" he says.
Under ICE policy, schools are supposed to be "sensitive locations" where immigration action should be avoided if possible. But the Trump administration's expansion of who is considered a priority for deportation has cast doubt on whether schools are really safe spaces for undocumented students.
It's a concern that hits close to home in the Triangle. Just last month, a Durham County Sheriff's Office checkpoint set up near a school sparked suspicion about the real motive of the stop (officials said it was to catch speeders). The public opposition may have contributed to the Durham Police Department's decision to halt DPD-initiated checkpoints altogether.
Durham, Wake, Orange, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools do not ask for a student's immigration status upon enrollment. (After all, they can't share information with immigration officials that they don't have.) According to the Pew Research Center, 8.7 percent of North Carolina students have a parent who is undocumented.
Law enforcement should seek permission before entering Durham Public Schools and are expected to interview students about nonschool matters away from school. Wake County schools also instruct law enforcement to conduct interviews off-campus, while Orange County says interviews should happen in the principal's office. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools law enforcement policy does not give specific instructions.
Durham Public Schools, where about 28 percent of students are Latino, recently doubled down on a resolution it passed after Wildin Acosta's detention, calling for law enforcement to honor the sensitive-locations policy. A group of activists also recently asked Wake County schools to adopt a safe-zone policy.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County schools have sent out letters addressing concerns about immigration enforcement. About 16 percent of CHCCS students are Latino, but the proportion is higher at some schools, including Frank Porter Graham, a bilingual elementary school where staff are being trained on immigration history and policy.
"We have students at our school who are worried about their friends being deported, for example," says FPG principal Emily Bivins. "I would say there has been an increase in the number of kids who are worried about this and the amount of time counselors and teachers are spending talking about these concerns."
Maureen Joy, where 55 percent of students are Latino, was already reaching out to the immigrant community before the election. Last summer, people slept in the school parking lot to get Faith IDs, an alternative to a government-issued ID. Last month, the school partnered with El Centro for an information session that packed the school's auditorium.
"After the election, we told our kids not to worry, that they were safe. And now we need to be very careful in saying that," says Bela Kussin, the school's equity and community facilitator.
The school has focused on being a resource for immigrant parents, helping teachers address students' anxiety, and countering rhetoric that students hear outside school. Students seem more concerned about the safety of their parents than themselves, Bailey says, while the risk of getting pulled over has deterred some parents from attending school events.
"We feel powerless sometimes because you're unable to just fix it or make it go away," Bailey says. "I think that's the part that feels so foreign to us. We don't have the ability as we normally would to personally impact and change that situation."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Safe Spaces"