by Cindy McMahon
Immigration is a hot topic. No matter your place on the political spectrum, your blood pressure is likely to rise when talk turns to travel bans, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, or a wall on the border with Mexico. Feelings run high on all sides.
What’s not debatable, though, is Buncombe County Schools’ responsibility to all students in our district, regardless of their immigration status. In the Plyler vs. Doe case of 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled that undocumented students have the same right to attend public schools as do US citizens and permanent residents. In fact, undocumented students in the US are obliged to attend school, just like everyone else. The same is true for students who were born here (and are therefore US citizens), but whose parents are not citizens and don’t have legal residence in this country.
As a result of the Plyler ruling, schools may not deny admission to any student on basis of immigration status, nor may we require students or parents to disclose their immigration status. The law is clear: the schools’ job is to help students learn and succeed.
Recent increased attention to immigration issues has intensified the fear among immigrant families in Buncombe and beyond, and children are not immune. They bring the fear to school, and it interferes with their learning.
Brenda Flores, mom of daughters at Cane Creek Middle and Fairview Elementary, shared the parent perspective: “There are many, many parents who would love to be more involved in day-to-day educational and recreational needs of their student and their school but do not out of a sense of fear. Fear of being reported and fear of repercussions against their children – however baseless these fears are, they are fears we deal with.”
Norma Duran Brown, Erwin District Family Outreach Specialist, explained that the situation can be quite complex for immigrant families: “Immigrant students and even those students born here from immigrant parents navigate two worlds, with expectations that sometimes can collide. As we know more about adverse childhood experiences, we need to be aware of the special circumstances surrounding all our students and how those circumstances impact behaviors and academics. Their success and our success will depend on our knowledge, awareness and response.”
Students are wondering: Will my parents be there when I get off the bus today? Who will take care of me if they get taken away? Will I have to leave my teacher and friends and go back to where my family came from? These fears make it hard to focus on addition and subtraction, not to mention solving a complicated calculus problem.
What can Buncombe County Schools do to help these students feel safe so they can focus on learning?
Several years ago, Buncombe County Schools was awarded a federal grant for a “Compassionate Schools” initiative. This program prepares staff and faculty to support students who have experienced traumatic events and are living with chronic stress. Students learn thinking and problem-solving techniques, as well as how to self-regulate and manage stress. This approach, which starts with teachers, counselors, and school personnel understanding where a student is coming from, helps us to mitigate the fear factor so that students can focus on learning.
Know Your Rights Workshops
Buncombe County Schools has partnered with Pisgah Legal Services to offer “Know Your Rights” workshops. At two workshops in April, parents learned the importance of creating care plans for their children in the unlikely event of ICE raids and detainment. Attendees also learned that schools are “sensitive locations” where ICE raids do not occur.
At the April 6 meeting of the Board of Education, we unanimously passed a resolution affirming Buncombe County Schools’ vital role in educating all children, including those from immigrant families. This resolution recognized that over 76 different languages are spoken in the homes of our Buncombe County students, that our policies prohibit harassment and bullying based on ethnicity or national origin, that schools are designated by the federal government as “sensitive places where any enforcement actions should be avoided,” and that we are committed to the success of all students that we have the privilege of educating. To my knowledge we are only the third School Board in NC to pass such a resolution.
The reality is that concerns about immigration and family safety are beyond the scope of what our schools can solve. These are much larger national and community challenges. But within our schools, we will continue to help students feel safe and secure so that they can prepare to become successful, responsible citizens in an ever-changing global society.
Cindy McMahon is the Reynolds District Representative, Buncombe County School Board. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.