Seattle Public Schools Enact New Protections and Supports for Immigrant and Refugee Students and Families

by Melia LaCour

On February 19 the nation acknowledged the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order forcing the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans. This anniversary sparked memories of our government’s long history of xenophobic-fueled, reflexive acts of violence towards citizens and immigrant communities. 75 years later, we are confronted with another Executive Order.

This time the order calls for a Travel Ban on immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, along with additional provisions restricting immigrant rights. Though the ban has been granted a temporary stay after Washington State sued the Federal government for unlawful action, the dark reality of federally sanctioned hate towards immigrants and refugees remains a threat.  In response, Seattle Public Schools has wasted no time in creating several protections to ensure the safety and support of immigrant and refugee students.

Perhaps the most significant protection is the “The Resolution Affirming the Provision of Safe, Welcoming and Inclusive Schools for All Students without Regard to Race, Religion, National Origin, or Immigrant Status,” which was unanimously passed by the Seattle School Board on February 15. “We determined that having the Board pass a resolution regarding their commitment to creating safe schools would be critical,” said attorney, Ronald Boy of Seattle Public Schools’ Office of General Counsel.  

Among the Board’s highest priorities was to ensure the resolution clearly defined a plan to address Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should they arrive on any campus.   “After the election, as general counsel, we started getting calls from administrators, teachers, and counselors who were hearing from their students that they were scared about what would happen if ICE came to school,” said Boy, “Once we started to get this feedback, we decided to put procedures together.” These procedures definitively prevent ICE agents from both accessing any student records and talking to any staff outside of the General Counsel’s Office. Agents are also strongly urged to adhere to current ICE policy which cautions “conducting enforcement actions in sensitive locations such as schools.”   

OneAmerica, a statewide immigrant rights advocacy organization, praised the district’s action. “We commend Seattle Public Schools as well as the many other districts and education institutions in our region who have taken a strong and courageous stand in support of safe spaces for immigrant and refugees in order to maintain a welcoming environment for all students,” said Roxana Norouzi, Director of Education and Integration Policy.

Norouzi shared several ways OneAmerica is partnering with Seattle to support immigrant and refugee students. As leaders of the ELL Workgroup within the Road Map Project, OneAmerica is overseeing the development of rapid response plans and ensuring best practices and resolutions are shared across the seven school districts in South King County.

OneAmerica also provides “Know Your Rights” training and urges schools to “lift up” immigrant and refugee families. “We feel it’s important our families are seen from an asset and strengths-based perspective, bringing all of their richness into the classrooms and our schools. Our job is to make sure this comes to the forefront and then we can build public will around it,” said Norouzi. 

In addition to OneAmerica, the district has collaborated with several partners to strengthen student safety. Through a partnership with the Legal Counsel for Youth and Children, key resources for parents have been developed. “My worry is what happens to kids when parents are detained or deported,” said Staff Attorney, Chach Duarte White. “I created the Immigration Safety Plan that tells parents how to prepare in this event.”

The plan recommends that parents create a Temporary Parental Consent Agreement.  “We suggest parents create this document so that a guardian with citizenship status can be appointed to make medical, travel and education decisions until everything can be sorted out. They don’t need a lawyer, just need to get it notarized.”

Veronica Gallardo, Director of ELL and International Programs at the district assisted with translating the plan into Somali and Spanish. Plans have also been made to translate the document into Amharic, Farsi and Urdu.  “The idea is if the parent is detained, it will prevent the police or CPS from being called if no one picks the kids up from school.”

The district is also working with Colectiva Legal Al Pueblo, “a non-hierarchal collective organization founded for and by undocumented immigrants working to build Community leadership and power for migrant justice through legal advocacy and education.”  

“We provide legal clinics to hold Know Your Rights trainings and bring in resources that are hard to access for families when there is so much uncertainty,” explained Victoria Mena, Policy Director and Development Strategist. Legal clinics include family preparedness planning, mental health support, and free 15-minute legal consultations with immigration attorneys.  Mena stressed preparedness planning to diminish fear and encouraged meetings with mental health professionals to learn tips to stay calm and receive advice on talking with kids about bullying.   

The district is also committed to creating a community of care for its students. On February 11th, the first “Identify Safe Schools Teach-In” was held for nearly 200 staff. “This was a grass-roots idea,” Gallardo shared, “we were getting a lot of teachers asking how to support students. We not only wanted to provide support for undocumented students but for students of many different identities.” This full day conference offered several workshops including “Countering Islamophobia in Our Schools,” and “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools for LGBTQ Youth.”  Local speakers Dr. Wayne Au, Dr. Daubi Abe, and Kyle Kinoshita reflected on the history that contributed to the current political climate.

Overall, the district and community partners are working hard to protect students and families. Norouzi said it best: “Affirming the rights of each and every student to an equal education, regardless of race, race, religion, national origin, or immigration status is one significant way in which our local and state leaders are unifying to resist and oppose negative threats from the Trump Administration.”

Many thanks to the district and community organizations for their tireless efforts in solidarity with immigrant and refugee youth and families across the region. 

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Melia LaCour is the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.