Amid national debate on immigration, Howard school system reaffirms role to educate all students

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Howard County’s school board has adopted a new policy reinforcing its commitment to guarantee education for all, regardless of immigration status.

The move comes amid a changing climate in the nation over undocumented residents and “removes the fear and anxiety that some of our families are facing today,” said Hector Garcia, CEO of Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, a Columbia nonprofit that helps immigrants.

The policy was forged by a 30-member committee of students, parents and representatives from local organizations established by the school board last year.

“What [the school board] wanted to do was reaffirm the responsibilities of the school system staff and also talk about things that we are not doing, [for example] we are not collecting certain data on students and families,” schools spokesman Brian Bassett said.

The school system does not collect or maintain data or information on immigration status of a current or prospective student.

The policy, approved earlier this month, will go in effect on July 1, 2019, allowing the school system time to roll out program planning, a protocol of most policies, according to Cherise Hunter, the school system’s policy manager.

Erika Strauss Chavarria, a member of the Howard County Education Association, the county’s teacher union, who served on the committee, said this “policy is so important right now… [especially with] the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is occurring nationally.”

“In times right now where we have our undocumented families being threatened on the federal level by our current [presidential] administration,” said Chavarria, who works with undocumented residents in the county and who sits on the board of directors of the Maryland State Education Association and National Education Association.

Congress has grappled with reforming the nation’s immigration laws for decades and President Donald Trump has called undocumented immigrants “animals” and has pledged build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The Howard policy is centralizing all the directives that the school has had in place for foreign-born students in one official document.

“If this policy didn’t exist these things would still be happening,” Bassett said.

A landmark 1982 Supreme Court ruling declared public schools cannot deny students access to education based on their immigration status.

The policy affirms that all children have access to the same educational programs and “ensures we [the school system] will not harass or discriminate based on ethnic background or statuses,” said Garcia.

In 2011, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency developed a policy regarding “sensitive locations,” that are not subject to certain enforcement actions, such as arrests, interviews and searches.

Schools are listed as a sensitive location, according to ICE. Unless federal, state or local law mandates otherwise, no immigrant enforcement actions can take place on any property owned or leased by the school system, according to the school system’s policy.

“ICE is not going to take action on school properties,” Garcia said “We have been lucky that we don’t have those types of actions going on in Howard County.”

The school system itself has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, harassment or intimidation directed towards a “student’s birthplace or real or perceived immigration status,” as stated in the policy.

In September 2017, the school board adopted a resolution declaring all school system facilities safe zones for all students and families, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. The resolution also declared school system staff would not request students or families to disclose information about their immigration status.

The county police department does not report undocumented individuals to ICE nor does it have authority to enforce violations of federal immigration laws, according to department police.

In May 2017, the police department created a new policy that reaffirmed its commitment to fair treatment of all members of the community, regardless of immigration status, according to the police department.

Like the school system, the police’s policy did not establish anything new but rather compiled all that the department already does into one document to clarify its “long-standing practices in immigration-related issues.”

Garcia said Howard is “way ahead of other counties and cities,” in addressing immigration issues.

“Taking it to the school level in order to address any issues that we may have with children is a huge step,” he said.

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jnocera@baltsun.com

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