A far-reaching coalition of activists will urge Wake County school board members at a Tuesday meeting to make each of its schools a “safe zone” for undocumented students.
Board members received notification in a Friday email from than two-dozen social justice and immigration rights groups including El Pueblo, Great Schools in Wake, and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children. School board member Jim Martin said Friday that he was aware of the fear many undocumented families are experiencing but added that the protections the coalition requests are covered under school board policy, federal guidelines, and Supreme Court rulings.
“We request that WCPSS evaluate and revise its enrollment procedures to ensure documentation requirements, such as proof of residency, guardianship, and records, do not discriminate against undocumented families or have a detrimental effect on their enrollment in school,” the group’s letter reads. “With respect to the chilling effect that potential immigration enforcement actions are having on children’s ability to meaningfully participate in school, we also urge WCPSS to become a Safe Zone and make a public statement opposing the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on WCPSS's campuses, near school bus sites, or in any way using the public school system to carry out immigration enforcement actions such as interrogations, detentions, or deportations.”
Additional involved groups include such established progressive nonprofits as the N.C. Council of Churches, the N.C. Justice Center, and the Youth Organizing Institute. Others are oriented toward specific ethnic or faith groups—the Triangle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, Muslims for Social Justice, and N.C. Asian Americans Together.
Martin said he had met with some of the involved parties and recognized their cause for alarm, which he said has escalated during the tenure of President Trump.
“I am very sensitive to understanding these concerns,” Martin said. “There has been undue fear that has been raised in the community by the current administration. It is my perception there has been intent to create fear in certain communities.”
Trump has said he would show “great heart” in dealing with DACA cases, although media reports have also revealed that the administration is considering eroding the Obama-era program’s protections
. Indeed, the way forward for students and other DACA recipients remains unclear given statements from the White House on Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department for Homeland Security.
"Everyone who is here illegally is subject to removal at any time,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters February 21. “But the priority that the president's laid forth and the priority that ICE is putting forward through DHS’s guidance is to make sure that the people who have committed a crime or threat to public safety are the priority of their efforts, first and foremost.”
The groups involved in the request to the Wake County school system say that significant uncertainty remains about how schools should respond to any effort to engage undocumented students.
“Teachers, school administrators, principals and other school personnel have reached out to some of our organizations indicating they were not aware of what they should do if immigration law enforcement agents try to enter a school site looking for an undocumented child or family, or student information regarding their immigration status,” the groups asking for a school board resolution said.
Martin said the nine-member school board has in recent years tended not to express itself through resolutions. However, the current chair, Monika Johnson-Hostler, who was traveling Friday, could take a different direction.
“Our polices are very clear on discrimination and harassment,” Martin said. “Discrimination is not allowed based on national origin, and ‘national origin’ is actually a bigger category than ‘immigrant.’”
"Our primary focus is ensuring that students know they are welcome and safe at school," Lisa Luten, director of communications for the Wake County Public School System, said Friday. "While we can't control outside factors, we assure students and their families that we will provide safety and support for students while they are in our care."
Luten acknowledged that students and families may be experiencing anxiety over these issues. "We want to let our families know that they have a right to be here, and we will respect that and honor that and educate every child that comes through our doors," she said.
Students may go through the system's International Student Center before enrolling in a specific school, but at that point, the students’ immigration statuses are not known to their teachers or staff, Luten said.
WCPSS officials say that counselors and social workers receive training so that they can support students socially and emotionally. In addition, families who may be struggling are supplied with leads to community resources.
Groups involved in the safe-zone effort are asking supporters to appear at the school board meeting at five thirty p.m. Tuesday at Wake schools headquarters, at 5625 Dillard Drive in Cary. A three thirty p.m. work session precedes the five thirty p.m. meeting.