In fearful times, Tacoma schools offer ‘safe zone’ for immigrant students

The Tacoma School Board Thursday adopted a resolution proclaiming that city schools will offer “a safe zone for immigrant students to learn and thrive.”

The resolution came on the heels of a similar announcement to parents and school staff members earlier in the week from Superintendent Carla Santorno.

The resolution says that the school board is committed to governing the district through “a lens of equity and social justice.” It also says the district wants to support all students in accessing public education “regardless of their religion, their place of birth, their language, their citizenship, their refugee status, their immigration status, their parents’ immigration status or any other legally-protected characteristics.”

As in Santorno’s message to parents, the board resolution states that Tacoma schools will provide a safe, private location where students may seek assistance, information and support related to immigration issues.

Santorno told the board that schools will identify a place — the counseling office, the principal’s office or other spot — where kids can go for support and information.

We never want our children or our families to be afraid to go to school.

Catherine Ushka, Tacoma School Board president

Board President Catherine Ushka said the resolution was prompted by “expressed community concerns” following the recent executive order from President Donald Trump, which temporarily banned travel to the United States for people from seven Muslim-majority countries. That order sparked protests across the country over the weekend.

Lincoln High School teacher Monique LeTourneau, a member of the group Teachers United, spoke to the board before the vote, thanking district officials for their leadership. She asked for Santorno’s message to be translated into more languages, so that students and families from countries targeted in the recent presidential order could understand it.

She also said teachers are asking whether the district can do more to help staff members support students.

“Today, I heard it expressed... that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can’t come onto school campuses,” LeTourneau said. But she added that “we are in unprecedented times.” She asked what steps would be taken to protect students if schools are faced with immigration enforcement actions.

Board member Debbie Winskill asked what might happen if a student from an immigrant family was sought by law enforcement in connection with a crime.

Santorno said the resolution wasn’t intended to interfere with current laws.

Ushka said she had heard that agencies in the city were fielding phone calls from kids who are afraid to go to school. She said the resolution is intended to allay those fears.

“We never want our children or our families to be afraid to go to school,” she said.

Tacoma Public Schools does not ask for or track the citizenship or immigration status of its students. That’s been the case for public schools across the nation since the 1980s, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that denied state funding for students whose parents entered the country without legal permission.

We are in unprecedented times.

Monique LeTourneau, Lincoln High School teacher

A federal student privacy law has also prohibited schools from disclosing a student’s citizenship or immigration status. But some experts say a court order or warrant could compel the school to disclose the information.

Tacoma isn’t the only school district speaking out in support of immigrant students. In a letter to families dated Jan. 30, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland said the district is committed to educating children regardless of “religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, or a student’s immigration status.”

He said Seattle schools hosted or supported events for families so that they know their rights. He told families that if an ICE agent asks for information about a student or requests access to school or district property, staff members have been instructed to refer the agent to Seattle Public Schools’ office of general counsel. And he said his district is providing training and resources for staff members on immigration rights.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo