Education

State schools chief urges districts to become ‘safe havens’ for kids, regardless of immigration status

State schools chief Tom Torlakson urged California school districts to declare their schools safe havens for all children, regardless of immigration status.
State schools chief Tom Torlakson urged California school districts to declare their schools safe havens for all children, regardless of immigration status. aseng@sacbee.com

California’s education chief has called on districts throughout the state to declare schools as safe havens against deportation and offered the Sacramento City Unified School District as a model.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson urged educators serving about 6.2 million students in California to take action, citing rising reports of bullying, harassment, and intimidation of K-12 students. The recommendation was distributed this week to county and school district superintendents, charter school administrators, and principals.

Torlakson said Thursday that after the November presidential election, families face “anxiety and in many cases outright fear. We want to use this as an opportunity to reassure parents that, regardless of immigration status, schools are welcoming places.”

“We will not be an arm of the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service),” he said.

Torlakson said he plans to meet with parents during town hall meetings around the state in January, February and March. “It’s a way of reassuring parents that schools are safe places and to not fear immigration officers tracking them down through school connections.”

Sacramento City Unified declared its schools safe havens on Dec. 8 after the election of President-elect Donald Trump, who made strict immigration enforcement part of his platform. Torlakson referenced the district’s resolution as an example in his statewide letter.

“Tom Torlakson is saying the fears of our students and families are valid and we as schools have a moral obligation to address those fears,” said Sacramento City Unified Trustee Jessie Ryan, who took the lead on the Sacramento resolution.

At Oak Ridge Elementary in Oak Park, Principal Daniel Rolleri said the push for safe havens will provide his students a sense of relief that they are being protected. About a third of students are non-native English speakers, according to state data.

“Initially when the election happened, there was talk on our campus about, ‘Does that mean our family is going to be deported?’ ” Rolleri said.

Jean Philson, whose children attended Oak Ridge for six years before transferring this school year, said children should not have to worry about their safety and security.

“School is one of the places where they should feel safe,” Philson said. “If they don’t, it’s going to affect everything, their attendance, their grade and their future.”

Torlakson’s letter to educators outlined how existing laws already protect students: A 1984 Supreme Court decision requires all schools to enroll eligible children, regardless of their immigration status. State and federal laws already prohibit disclosure of personal student information to law enforcement without parent permission, a court order or medical emergency.

And school districts already have flexibility in choosing how to verify a student’s age and residency. They need not ask for immigration documents. So why the need for district declarations?

“I believe it’s a way of reassuring parents that schools are a safe place, not to fear immigration officers tracking them down through school connections,” Torlakson said.

Joan Matteson, a conservative Shingle Springs activist, said she doesn’t see the need for schools to declare themselves safe havens.

“Those kids are not being threatened with being deported,” she said. “The people right now who are deemed threatened with deportation are the criminals.”

Matteson, president of the El Dorado chapter of the conservative California Republican Assembly organization, said she cannot speak for the group, which has taken no formal action on the issue.

“Only the people who are criminals will be rounded up and deported,” Matteson said. “After that’s done, then the rest of the issue will be addressed,” she said.

At Sacramento City Unified, Superintendent José Banda said he believes the district’s resolution is aimed more at parents and community members than at students.

“It’s going to be an ongoing process,” he said. “I think as the (presidential) inauguration comes closer, we’ll have a new president and new leadership in Washington, D.C.” And the district will want to reinforce the safe haven message for parents, he said.

Since Sacramento school trustees passed the district’s resolution, Ryan said, trustees from districts around the state have contacted her.

“It was very clear to me there was no statewide framework for how you address this,” Ryan said. “So I knew almost immediately there was a tremendous appetite for other school districts to take action to make their students feel safe.”

The Sacramento resolution came in response to the “intolerant rhetoric made over the course of the 2016 presidential race.” It specifies that immigration officials cannot enter campuses without written permission of the superintendent and that the district will not share student files that could help determine immigration status.

Similar declarations exist at public schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

At McClatchy High School in Sacramento, membership in the “Brown Issues” club that focuses on Latino issues grew as the presidential election progressed, said Jose Verdin, a full-time parent adviser who also advises the organization. Membership stands at about 150 students, he said, and includes broad ethnic representation.

“There are students who were not coming before,” Verdin said. But during the election, “they wanted to become more politically active.”

McClatchy High Principal Peter Lambert said he believes safe havens can help dispel an undercurrent of fear.

“We have many students who are apprehensive about filling out and completing forms – college applications, scholarship information, free and reduced lunch forms – information that they fear may come back and be used against them,” Lambert said. “Our goal is to make sure all our students feel safe and can access the academic programs and come to school and learn.”

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