"I would like you to understand that children cannot focus on their education and their future when they are worried about themselves and their parents," Hernandez said, referring to the possibility that immigration officials could enter Wake schools as part of immigration enforcement efforts. "I would like to appeal to you and to your humanity. Education in a safe environment is a right."
Across the country, undocumented students’ ability to attend public school has been at issue since President Donald Trump ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to step up deportation. At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, Superintendent Jim Merrill referred to the case of those who were there in opposition to the ICE initiative.
"Law enforcement officers are expected to question students away from school regarding non-school-related matters," he said.
Hernandez and representatives of twenty-eight advocacy groups submitted a "safe zone" resolution for board consideration Friday, arguing that the existing policy wasn't strong enough. School districts in Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities have adopted similar resolutions.
The school system responded quickly, noting that its primary focus is to ensure students know they are welcome and safe in schools. But a statement issued by WCPS added that the schools "can't control outside factors." Advocates aren't satisfied.
“If fails to specify the scope of allowed interactions,” said Stephanie Lormand, a member of the Education Justice Alliance. “We ask the board to seriously consider moving forward into specificity.”
The board's public hearing periods are not designed to elicit response from members, but to convey information, but during the customary opening remarks from Merrill and board members, emphasis was placed on the school board's existing policy, which follows the precepts of a 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe.
"These children can neither affect their parents' conduct nor their own undocumented status," the court ruled in a five-to-four decision. "The deprivation of public education is not like the deprivation of some other governmental benefit. Public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological wellbeing of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement."
Several school board members referred to their own family histories in opening remarks. Christine Kushner, the board's vice chairman, said her father came to Fayetteville from Greece as a teen in 1946. “Being in a public school for a fifteen-year-old man in the nineteen forties opened up America,” Kushner said, adding that sharing such stories can lead to “greater conversations” about pressures that face the school system and the community.
No official action was taken by the board, but the INDY will continue to follow this story as it develops.