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Students reeling after Kent School District halts international field trips over border concerns

Worried about stricter enforcement at the U.S. border, the Kent School Board has canceled all international field trips for the foreseeable future.
Worried about stricter enforcement at the U.S. border, the Kent School Board has canceled all international field trips for the foreseeable future. Thinkstock Images

The Kent School Board has decided to halt all international field trips, worried that stricter border enforcement could prevent Kent students who are in the United States illegally from returning to the country.

The decision, announced at what was described as an emotional board meeting Wednesday night, resulted in the immediate cancellation of two Kentlake High School trips scheduled for this school year: an education exchange to Osaka, Japan, and a band trip to Victoria, B.C., that has been a school tradition for 18 years.

Chris Loftis, the district’s executive director of communications, said the “sometimes confusing messaging” from President Donald Trump’s administration regarding border enforcement raised questions about whether all of the students slated to go on those trips would be allowed to return to the U.S., especially if they lacked adequate documentation of legal U.S. residency.

“You cannot go on a field trip with 60 kids and come back with 59,” he said.

It’s unclear how many area schools or districts have made similar decisions.

A Seattle Public Schools spokesman said he didn’t know of any cancellations in that district. Bellevue School District did not have any international trips planned this year, its spokeswoman said.

The cancellations in Kent sent many students reeling.

“I was dumbstruck,” said Kentlake junior Megan Monahan, 16, who has traveled to Victoria twice with the school’s band for the Victoria Day Parade and concerts on the pier there. “I couldn’t even comprehend that we weren’t going.”

In the past, students under 18 who did not have a valid passport traveled to and from Canada without incident, according to Monahan and other students who went on previous trips.

But when School Board member Russ Hanscom called the local U.S. Customs and Border Protection office this year, he was told there was a very high chance a student would be detained at the border if he or she lacked adequate documentation, Loftis, the district official, said.

That office, in an emailed statement, said the agency is willing to meet with school leaders to discuss the entry process.

“Immigration laws have not changed,” the statement said. “In accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act, all travelers seeking to enter the United States must prove to the inspecting officer that they are legally entitled to enter the United States.”

School Board President Karen DeBruler said everyone on the board understood what was at stake: months of planning and fundraising, and the excitement that goes along with what is often a memorable and inspiring experience for students.

“It’s not fair for them not to go,” she said in an interview Friday. “But things are changing on a very unprecedented basis.” Allowing some students to go would mean that the students who couldn’t go would be “exposed as being undocumented,” she said.

Loftis said the board based its decision, in part, on a 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyer v. Doe, which states that “denying undocumented school-age children a free and public education is unconstitutional.” Because of that, the Kent School District, with students who hail from more than 100 countries and who speak more than 135 languages, does not ask for or track students’ immigration status.

A number of students oppose the board’s decision, saying the trips aren’t required, and there are always some students who can’t go, sometimes because they can’t afford the fees.

Junior Jordyn Mastroff said that students and families have already done much of the work required to organize the band trip, which is the only opportunity each year for the band to play in front of large audiences.

Mastroff questioned whether it was fair to have left students with financial issues behind in the past, yet adopt an all-or-nothing policy now.

“I do not want to know if someone is undocumented or not,” she said. “But their feelings should not influence the decision of letting 250 other students go that have been going to this for years.”

Junior Molly Barlett, 17, called the Victoria trip “the most exciting and important experience in the band program.”

“I feel bad, but I don’t think we should stop the whole trip just because they can’t go. I understand why they (the board) did it, but it also drives me nuts because we’ve gone on other trips and had no problem with border stuff.”

Several students, including sophomore Braden Ross, said they wished the issue had been raised earlier.

“To be honest, it’s more than just a bit heartbreaking,” Ross said. “We have put months into planning and fundraising, just to be told a few weeks before the trip that we can’t go. If we had been alerted earlier, maybe we could have come up with some kind of solution, or maybe made plans to go to another event. But since it’s on such short notice, the odds of finding an alternative are very slim.”

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