Full Comments by Superintendent on Immigration and School Climate

John Bowes
John Bowes

(Editor’s note: By request of some of our readers here are the full comments by DJUSD Superintendent John Bowes as well as a few selected comments by Board Member Madhavi Sunder).

by John Bowes

The recent national election has left our country and community divided on many fronts. This dissension has caused a myriad of emotional responses among members of our school community.  Of particular concern to many is the possibility of any future federal immigration policies that might affect undocumented individuals (and or their children), some who live in our school boundaries and may attend our schools.   We have taken these matters seriously, and I want to let you know this evening we have been analyzing and planning for a comprehensive and thoughtful approach. It is important for us to fully understand the real implications of any actions we would propose to take at the local level.

Our primary goal is to ensure that our schools are safe and secure learning environments, both for students and staff.  We care about their physical and social/emotional health.

Prior to the election, the Davis Enterprise published my Op Ed entitled, “Our Schools Should be Places Where All Students Can Flourish”.  That column identified steps we are taking to ensure the social and emotional health of students, to provide quality programs for all students and how we are going about closing the achievement and opportunity gaps that exist in our District.

Immediately after the election, my team took steps to communicate with families and staff about school climate in the post-election season.  I sent a letter to all families in the DJUSD which addressed our focus on creating safe learning environments for all students .  Additionally, we have made staff aware of these issues and are providing direction and support services to address these mutual concerns.  Both the Op Ed and the Letter can be read on the District website and using the translation function at the bottom of our website it can be viewed in Spanish and many other languages.

This is a very real and poignant issue for so many in our community.  I want to reassure our community we are engaged on this important topic.  I spoke to that yesterday evening at a meeting I attended at the Stephens Branch Library hosted by the City Council, Police Department and UC Davis focused on how we can create a positive and sustainable community for all of our citizens, including families and students at our school sites as regards this topic.

I met a number of parents and community members and continue to gather impartial information from staff, parents and community members engaged around how to reduce fear and anxiety in our community.  Please be assured we are and will continue to address this issue and I will be communicating with families and students next week before we recess for the winter break.

I attended an important press conference in Woodland on December 5 concerning the hate letter sent to the Islamic Center in Davis.  The clear message from Yolo County, Woodland and Davis leaders is that we will not stand for this.  We must ensure we all act on the guidance given at the press conference – “If you see something, say something.”

Safety on the playground, in classrooms, in schools and in our community is a vital mutual interest in which we all must play a part – just today we learned of the attempted abduction of a 12-year old in town and we shared the police information with all of our parents and staff.  We can make our community safer by supporting each other to create safe spaces across Davis for our youth.  This includes making our schools and communities free from hate speech and harassment.  We know that fear and anxiety are both stressful and inhibit students’ ability to learn – schools are and will continue to be safe and secure learning environments.

We have heard the concerns that have been shared and I want to address those now:

The District has not collected nor will it collect information regarding the immigration status of students.  The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe provides 14th amendment equal protection that ensures that all students, including immigrant students, have a fundamental right to a public education.  With that decision, important protections surrounding student privacy exist.  The DJUSD is not allowed to inquire about immigration status – we do not and will not be asking for any students’ immigration status.  Further, if the District incidentally is provided information about a student’s immigration status, we are not required to collect nor do we share that information.

When discussing any federally-controlled issue, we need to be cognizant of our federal funds.  Federal funding supplies almost five percent of our annual budget in the DJUSD.   These 3.2 million federal dollars fund critical programs for students receiving services through Special Education, English Learner, Perkins Grant Career Technical Education, and our free and reduced meal programs.  Many of the students receiving these services are our students caught in the achievement and opportunity gap.  Some students rely on our schools for one to two meals per day and we know students learn best when their basic needs are meet – we do not want to lose funding for any of these critical programs which serve all students across the district, including many undocumented students.

While we are not the first out of the gate, DJUSD is actively engaged in addressing this issue.  We know of five out of the over 1000 school districts in California that have adopted some sort of recent safe schools resolution and these include Oakland, Los Angles, Basset, San Diego and Sacramento.

I very much appreciate the many suggestions we have received in what to include in a resolution to protect the rights of students in the DJUSD, and accept those collaborative efforts in that same spirit.  This is very important and the District is actively researching and reviewing a wide variety of information as we develop our proposed resolution.  Our goal is to craft a meaningful resolution that reflects our Davis community.

There are many unknowns.  Undefined terms and a pending new Presidential administration with developing policy directives are all reasons to take a deliberate and meaningful approach to this work.

The City of Davis has been a sanctuary city for 36 years – during that time the District and City along with the university have worked in concert with each other to support the Davis Principles of One Community established in 2008 and we are committed to those beliefs and values.  ‘Sanctuary’ is an undefined term, as is the term ‘safe-haven’.

It is too early to know what policy changes the incoming federal administration might propose and implement.  However, we should anticipate that any enforcement action would most likely take the form of a threat to cut off some or all federal funds to non-compliant public school districts.  A recent Davis Enterprise article cites the president-elect vowing “to cut off federal funding to any jurisdictions that provide sanctuary to undocumented residents.”  The impacts of a loss of federal funding would hamper our efforts to serve many of our most vulnerable students and we must approach this area with all due diligence.

We are not alone in these efforts. 

There is pending California state legislation to assist school districts on the immigration issue

Under existing law, the confidentiality of pupil records does NOT permit the disclosure of student record information, including citizenship or immigrant status to immigration authorities, except in response to a lawful subpoena after notice to the parent, upon written parent consent, or in response to an evident emergency.

We have looked at the federal policy related to the enforcement of immigration policy at schools.  In regard to the enforcement action at or focused at schools, we believe that current federal policy has school districts classified as sensitive locations.  While this federal policy treats schools as ‘sensitive locations’ thereby providing schools greater types of protection from immigration enforcement efforts, it does not entirely prohibit immigration-related actions from taking place at school sites.

State Senator President Pro Tem Kevin de León has announced a bill (SB 54) that would create “safe zones” at public schools where immigrant enforcement would be prohibited.

In seeking to establishing “safe zones” for immigrants in the country illegally, SB 54 would require California schools, hospitals and courthouses to adopt policies that limit immigration enforcement on their premises to the fullest extent possible consistent with federal and state law.  We are monitoring the progress of this bill to see how it could assist school districts on the immigration issue

This will be an ongoing effort that will be seen and felt at all levels.  What we say is critical but what we do makes the difference.  Right now, we are engaging with staff, parents, students and community leaders around this issue.  I am holding meetings with staff to review our procedures and learn about how we can improve our processes and efforts to make schools safe and productive learning environments for all students and protect information.

Steps to inform and improve our practices will include my visits to school sites in January to engage those most directly affected by potential changes to immigration policies.  I am glad to see so many people hear this evening advocating for those who historically have less agency and voice in the community.  One thing I learned as a teacher in immigrant communities of Los Angeles and during my tenure as Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala is that if you don’t make the effort to engage those most directly in need, you will never fully engage those who are in need of assistance.

We are a community that cares.  This is part of what we mean by focusing on social and emotional support for students—modeling for them and helping them learn how to create a caring community. We are all made healthy by caring for others, no matter our circumstances. To further that work, we are

  1. Crafting a resolution stating our beliefs about this issue and that also reinforces our values, reduces fear and anxiety, protects student information and promotes safe learning environments
  2. Reaffirming for the community our current practices concerning student safety and immigration information
  3. Continuing to analyze what safety and other precautions should be taken at the local level including providing resources to parents and students
  4. Making any needed changes to Board Policies, Administrative Regulations and other documents to ensure a meaningful and robust application of our Resolution
  5. Reviewing and updating any school site and district data collection procedures regarding hate speech, bullying, harassment and related concerns
  6. Developing training staff on how to implement the resolution
  7. Sharing information and, where we can, in multiple languages (there are 38 of them spoken in our District), and across different communication and social media platforms

I will be communicating with families and the community next week as we approach the winter break and visiting school sites and meeting with parents when we return from the winter break.

First-hand knowledge and insights from those most impacted will help to inform the development of a District resolution.

We know that the Presidential inauguration is on January 20 and we will be looking at the potential impacts of any new or predicted policy changes affecting immigration and schools.

I will provide an update to the Board at our January Board meeting and ask for their direction in bringing a Resolution forward.

The ability of the Davis Joint Unified School District to support students who feel vulnerable will help both those individual students and will help create safer schools for all students we serve.

Excerpt of Madhavi Sunder’s Statement at BOE Meeting on December 16, 2016

“I want to begin by noting that some students in our community are feeling targeted in the current social climate. Given that that targeting has received support at the highest political levels, I wanted to speak personally to the students who are afraid. Some students are afraid for themselves—because they might be targeted for hate speech or discrimination or even threatened with violence. Others are afraid for their parents, their aunts, their cousins—who they fear might be subjected to deportation.”

“The public schools in this town will remain a welcoming place to students of all religions, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Furthermore, we do not inquire about the immigration status of our students. The promise of public education is one that we make to all students in our community, regardless of immigration status. Indeed, this is a constitutional obligation, one affirmed by the Supreme Court in the case of Plyler v. Doe.”

“I hope our Board will formally resolve soon that we welcome and support all of our students, will protect their rights, and will resist efforts to enlist our school district to act in ways adverse to the interests of our students.”

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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