Why This Immigrants-Rights Group Wants Philly Schools to Become Sanctuaries

Elsewhere in the country, it's proven that sanctuary-school trainings and policies work.

Juntos organizers gather outside the school district office in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy Juntos)

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Update: On June 25, 2021, the Philadelphia Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of a sanctuary schools resolution.

In May of 2016, Oakland, California resident María was in her kitchen when her husband was detained by ICE agents outside of their home.

Immediately after the arrest, María went to her daughter’s school, Melrose Leadership Academy, to notify them of the incident. The principal, Moyra Contreras, moved swiftly.

Contreras called the district’s sanctuary task force hotline, contacted their emergency response team, and put María in touch with a volunteer from the Immigrant Family Defense Fund, a nonprofit that assists those facing deportation with legal aid and bond money.

The Defense Fund paid Maria’s husband’s $2,000 bail bond and he was released by 2:00 p.m. PM that afternoon. The family is still together, now 5 years later.

Contreras knew what to do when María came to the school because of the in-depth, step-by-step protocols developed by the Oakland Unified School District and the Oakland community. The district also holds safety training for principals at the beginning of every school year.

Oakland declared itself a sanctuary district for immigrant students and families in 2016, and in 2017, a flurry of school districts across the country followed. Now a total of 169 districts, according to a report from the NEA, have made public commitments to protecting their students.

In many places, such as Oakland, these commitments have led to concrete actions from schools to keep their communities safe.

The Philadelphia School District, the eighth-largest in the country, is not on the list.

Juntos, an immigrant rights organization in Philadelphia, launched its sanctuary school campaign on March 1.

The first demand of the campaign: Adopt their Sanctuary School Resolution, which establishes guidelines for interactions with ICE, an emergency response team, and widespread training for district staff.

The launch comes one year after a mother was detained by ICE at a bus stop in front of her child’s school building, Kirkbride Elementary in South Philadelphia.

The School District of Philadelphia organized district-wide trainings in 2017, but haven’t run them again since.

The district also developed a toolkit which suggests ways for teachers and staff to support immigrant and refugee students, and offers some steps for dealing with ICE agents.

But Zia Kandler, a Juntos organizer, said their guidelines are not clear enough. Juntos wants more “concrete rules around how that interaction should be,” said Kandler.

Most district teachers do not know about the district guidelines. According to the results of a yearlong survey conducted by Juntos, out of about 350 Philadelphia district teachers, only 19% percent were aware of the toolkit, or any measures taken by the district to protect immigrant students.

Districts across the country have been working on implementing their sanctuary school resolutions for years now. Instructing teachers on ICE interactions has been priority.

In Denver, the district created a webinar showing teachers and staff what to do when faced with a request from ICE officials for access to school property, students, or student records. The webinar lives in a central place on the district website, for permanent access.

The Denver resolution states that schools will not grant access to ICE officials unless they have a search warrant.

Austin, Texas, also passed a sanctuary school resolution in 2017. There, teachers are mostly trained by the local teachers union, Education Austin.

Karen Reyes, an Austin kindergarten teacher and union member, facilitates some “know your rights” trainings across the district and nationally, with the American Federation of Teachers. In Austin, her trainings are open to all community members; including parents, teachers, and staff. She said district leaders still need to organize more trainings for educators, without relying on her or the union.

After her sessions, Reyes says teachers seem more capable of intervening in situations involving ICE.

“If you don’t know the rights of someone, you cannot help, or advocate for what they need,” said Reyes.

Reyes offers participants a handful of resources at her Austin trainings, including a list of pro-bono attorneys and emergency preparedness plans for families. Then both teachers and families have those contacts on hand in case of emergency.

Her training also allows educators to better connect with students, especially when paired with history lessons on immigration.

“Having that knowledge helps them be able to relate and build connection, and not coming from a place of judgment,” said Reyes.

Back in Oakland, Olivia Udovic, a kindergarten teacher, also sees her district collectively prepared for emergency situations.

Udovic said there isn’t confusion around their ICE procedures. Educators share a common expectation, she said: “Protect the family.”

Nicole Knight is the executive director of Oakland’s English Language Learner and Multilingual Achievement program. She said families know that their children will be safe at the school until they can pick them up.

We “communicate that we are going to do everything in our influence and power to make sure that families are not separated,” said Knight.

Their protocols are a living document, responsive to the needs of the community. Nowadays, principals even have the ability to send robocalls to families to notify them of ICE activity in their area.

All new teachers receive an overview of the sanctuary resolution and safety protocols. Now, Oakland is preparing a mandatory online course for all teachers.

Mandatory training is exactly what Juntos is calling for in Philadelphia.

75% of teachers who responded to Juntos’ survey had never received training regarding ICE in schools.

In 2017, each school was supposed to send representatives to be trained by the district, and then those representatives were supposed to train teachers and staff at their individual schools.

But often those trainings never trickled down to teachers. Many staffers say, even if they did attend a training, they were inadequate.

Kristin Luebbert, currently a ninth grade teacher, said her training at the Bache-Martin School in Fairmount, went too quick. The instructor buzzed through each slide.

According to Luebbert, the instructor said, “We can rush it. We have a lot of other things to do.”

Teresa Kelley, fourth grade teacher at Lewis Elkin, ran her own training after taking issue with her administration’s preparedness.

Her assistant principal started the training, and “it felt to me that he was opening it for the first time,” said Kelley.

To Kelley, his tone was without urgency, and rather, like it was just ‘another box that [they] needed to check as a building.’” On top of that, there were no conversations around ICE.

Luebbert believes the responsibility shouldn’t lie on teachers, but on district leaders. She said the district gives instructions to school administration, but does not follow up.

Many Philadelphia teachers are left unsure of how to respond to situations involving ICE.

Kandler agrees, and explained, this is not an individualistic problem. “Our survey results show systematic uncertainty within the Philadelphia School District around how to respond to interactions with ICE and how to best support immigrant families and students. This is not about teachers or administrators’ lack of commitment in supporting immigrant students.”

The Philly school district, within their ‘Welcoming School Toolkit,’ instructs staff and administrators to contact the district’s Office of the General Counsel if ICE shows up on campus.

“But we called the general counsel,” said Zia Kandler, “and we asked them about that section in the toolkit. Not only did the general counsel not know that that was happening,” but it’s clear from our survey results, that most teachers don’t understand who to call, said Kandler.

Both Kelley and Luebbert haven’t been trained since 2017, which seems to be the case for most teachers in the district who have been around that long.

The School District of Philadelphia did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Juntos is asking for yearly training for educators, and for the use of an outside advisory council, made up of community members, parents, and staff, to ensure the implementation of the sanctuary resolution.

It’s important for those most impacted by the resolution to stay involved “every step of the way,” said Kandler.

For Juntos, this is about protecting students, and easing fears, so they can focus on what’s happening in the classroom.

“This is an opportunity for the school district to say, ‘We’re listening and we’re going to take action regarding what y’all need to access quality education.’“

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Emily Rizzo, she/her, is a media maker and freelance journalist living in South Philadelphia. She mostly reports for Philadelphia’s member NPR station, WHYY, on education.  

Tags: philadelphiaimmigrationschoolssanctuary cities

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