Magazine Feature

School as Sanctuary

Immigrant and refugee students and families are under threat. Many schools have joined a movement to protect them.
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Illustration by Nicole Rifkin

In San Leandro, California, history haunts. The fog that rolls over the yachts and golf courses on the coast disappears into the same air that held the smoke and screams for justice from this summer’s protests.

The suburb has a legacy of exclusion. After World War II, covenants kept property owners from selling space to people of color—especially Black people from nearby Oakland. San Leandro was built, in many ways, to keep people out.

Dr. Sonal Patel felt the weight of that history when she talked to Black families about their experiences with racism as they lived and worked in the surrounding communities. She felt that weight acutely after the September 11th attacks. A kindergarten teacher at the time, she listened as Sikh and Muslim families expressed to her that they felt unwelcome in the city.

“I’m not sure we want to live in the community,” she remembers them telling her. “We’re having a hard time walking to school.” During this time, Patel says, many Sikh and Muslim families left the school community and left San Leandro altogether.

Back then, the district lacked concrete plans to address these families’ concerns. Today, Patel serves as the assistant superintendent of educational services for the San Leandro Unified School District. She looks back on these experiences as teachable moments—and as turning points.

“We have made a really concerted effort to really outreach and ensure that our school district is conscious of the history and legacy of what’s happened,” she says, citing the long-unaddressed need for anti-racist policies and the consequences of not having proactive plans in place immediately following 9/11.

In 2016, when xenophobia once again threatened to unmoor entire communities, students from San Leandro High School’s Social Justice Academy made a presentation to the school board. They didn’t want history to repeat itself.

They wanted to be a sanctuary school—and a sanctuary district.

What Is a Sanctuary School?

Like sanctuary cities, sanctuary schools are not firmly rooted in a single, legal definition.  Instead, the “sanctuary school” label broadly signals a commitment to protecting undocumented students and their families from federal immigration enforcement, especially in school spaces.

This is necessary, in part, because the barrier between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and school campuses is razor-thin. The only thing keeping ICE from entering schools is an internal policy—ICE’s “Sensitive Locations Memorandum” from 2011. The memo also lists churches, funeral homes and hospitals as sensitive locations where arrests won’t be made.

But in Pennsylvania this past March, a man from Honduras was detained inside a hospital and taken into ICE custody. For many undocumented people, it was a terrifying reminder that the memo may not protect them, even in their most vulnerable moments. Someone seeking life-saving care could be separated from their family—so why not someone taking their child to school? Why not someone walking to homeroom?

“Everything that we’ve seen from this administration leads us to believe that we ought not be surprised about what they do,” says Paul Chavez, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s immigrant justice work in Florida. He says it’s important for schools and districts to draw a line in the sand with comprehensive sanctuary policies.

After all, public schools have a legal obligation to enroll undocumented students and remove barriers to equitable education. Sanctuary schools take this responsibility and add to it a recognition that equal access to education cannot happen in a space in which students from immigrant families feel unsafe.

According to Immigrants Rising, a nonprofit advocating for institutional and policy change, sanctuary schools uphold that promise of safety by, at the least, refusing to share student information with federal immigration authorities; restricting those authorities’ access to campuses; keeping school officers from serving as resources to those authorities; and providing supports that serve undocumented students and students with undocumented family members.

These core qualities of sanctuary schools parallel a long history of local resistance.

A Call to Action

The modern U.S. sanctuary movement is most often traced back to the 1980s, when synagogues, churches, campuses and entire cities offered refuge to people fleeing civil war in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—a rebuke of Reagan-era intervention in the region and immigration policies denying refugees “asylee” status.

The movement regained steam more than 20 years later. As refugees once again arrived in the United States from Central America in large numbers, the Obama administration drastically increased immigration enforcement, at one point surpassing 400,000 deportations in a single year.

Against a backdrop of mass deportation and raids by ICE, schools saw students traumatized and families afraid to send their kids to class. Districts in Albuquerque, Los Angeles and San Francisco passed sanctuary resolutions and policies in response.

Upon the election of President Trump—whose campaign rhetoric had included promises to close the southern border, increase ICE enforcement and ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries—those fears multiplied. By late 2016, calls to address them head-on had become urgent.

“Kids were not coming to school. There was a huge drop in November. And then you had kids coming to school crying,” says Roseann Torres, a second-term member of the school board in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).

At that time, OUSD already had a sanctuary policy in place. It had been instituted after a 2008 incident when an ICE officer allegedly escorted a student’s mother to a school campus before detaining her. But threats of increased ICE enforcement resurfaced that community trauma, Torres says, and in the aftermath of Trump’s election, “everybody went into panic mode.”

It became clear that they needed to dust the old policy off and address its actionability. In December of 2016, with the support of fellow representative Shanthi Gonzalez, Torres introduced a new sanctuary resolution.

The resolution’s language affirmed students’ right to education and all school services regardless of immigration status. It also encouraged improved history curricula and engagement with current events, partnerships with community-based and legal aid organizations, policies that protected students and their personal data from ICE, and training for staff to see these promises through.

The resolution passed. It was among the first of a post-2016 wave across the United States.

The following month, President Trump issued executive orders attempting to mandate cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. In the 100 days after he signed those orders, more than 41,000 people were arrested for civil immigration offenses.

Students—and schools—immediately felt the devastating repercussions. In February 2017, a raid in Las Cruces, New Mexico, resulted in a 60 percent increase in student absences. Cities like Miami, Des Moines, Portland and Milwaukee created or revised sanctuary school resolutions to tighten protections for undocumented students and families.

California led the way. By September of 2017, 118 of the state’s school districts had declared themselves “safe havens” or sanctuaries. Oakland was one of those districts. So was San Leandro.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, as anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and executive orders descended from the highest office in the land, the San Leandro community had wanted to know where their schools stood—and if they’d be protected. Spurred by student activists and a proactive school board, Dr. Sonal Patel and others got to work.

“Schools by design aren’t necessarily safe havens,” Patel says. “You have to actually, actively make them so.”

Policy Checklist

How is your school supporting undocumented students and families?

  • Enrollment
    What information must be provided for students to enroll? How is your school or district ensuring you’re not requiring students or families to disclose their citizenship status?
  • Student Services
    What information must be provided for students to access extracurricular or support services? Check up on athletics policies, 504 and IDEA enrollment, free and reduced lunch enrollment, transportation policies, resources for students experiencing food insecurity or homelessness, and more.
  • Family Resources
    How are translation services managed by your school or district? Who is responsible for ensuring all information is available in all home languages? What community resources are available to families—including connections to pro-bono legal supports, “Know Your Rights” clinics, and food and health care support for undocumented families? Where is this information available?
  • Discipline
    Under what circumstances may law enforcement interact with students on your campus? Who serves as point of contact for law enforcement? Who ensures FERPA guidelines are followed?

Put this story into action with our toolkit

More Than a Resolution

In Oakland, some community members were initially wary of the district’s revamped resolution. Some wanted language explicitly stating that immigration officers would not be allowed on campuses. A student director on the school board pushed the adults to move beyond symbolic gestures, and many in the community wanted to know how the language on the page would translate into action.

“Anything that is just words, but isn’t followed up with real action, is what leads to distrust,” explains Nicole Knight.

The executive director of the district’s English Language Learner and Multilingual Achievement Department, Knight created the Sanctuary Task Force, which brought people together from across OUSD to enact actionable policies.

“That’s what we felt like we were charged to do and what was needed in our community,” Knight says.

In San Leandro, as well, district leaders emphasized the need for a policy that would operationalize the promise of safety. A strong resolution had passed, but words weren’t enough.

“Policy work is really important,” Patel says. “But when we changed all of those policies, it would not have changed a single day-to-day interaction between folks on our campuses unless we actually took every policy and had an implementation plan.”

School- and District-level Actions

After the 2016 election, Roseann Torres remembers feeling an immediate shift in Oakland.

“The teachers became social workers and immigration attorneys overnight,” she says, “and they didn’t know immigration law.”

In answer, the sanctuary task force created an “ICE protocol”—a series of steps staff could follow in the event of ICE activity at or near their schools. With input from family liaisons, the task force identified five scenarios school staff members needed to be ready for. Three involved what to do if ICE showed up on physical property with a warrant, a subpoena or no documentation. The other two were more common scenarios: What to do if a caregiver or student reported a family member had been detained or if educators learned ICE was in the area or had conducted raids in the community.

Knight is among the Oakland educators who facilitated thousands of staff-level trainings surrounding the policy and protocol. Trainings equip staff with an understanding of their rights and students’ rights and with processes and resources for supporting families. These include contacts for legal aid and automatic calls to families in the event of local ICE activity during drop-off or pick-up times.

“We’ve been able to intervene in those ways and provide very real, concrete support, equipping our sites with the resources and the partnerships they need,” Knight says.

She recalls a student’s mother who came to school upset because her husband had been detained by ICE at 8:00 a.m. The school’s principal and staff followed the protocol, offering emotional support and getting in touch with appropriate contacts. The district was able to deploy legal support immediately. With help from the Immigrant Family Defense Fund, the father obtained representation and was released on bond by 2:30 p.m. Two years later, he’s still with his family.

In San Leandro, the district faced some community pushback for explicitly naming immigrant, Muslim and Latinx communities in their policies and recommended practices. But Patel defends the specificity.

“We have stories of people in our community being separated from their parents, their uncles, their grandparents, their kids,” she says. “And so we have to attend to the current political and social reality. ... Those are the communities that are feeling this distress right now and are being targeted.”

To directly counter the hateful rhetoric dividing the country and the community, those crafting the policies combed the curriculum and school calendar for anti-Muslim practices and scrutinized enrollment policies to ensure they were inclusive of immigrant families. Implementation and training sessions helped staff and leadership understand what problematic policies and curricula look like—and how to dismantle them.

Patel emphasizes the importance of including all staff members in trainings. She describes her district’s efforts as a “work in progress” and notes that implementation requires not only school leaders and educators but also custodians, crossing guards, front office staff, mental health professionals and after-school program workers.

“There are so many people who wrap around a student,” she explains. They all should be equipped with the ability to support students and families.

From field trips to visitor policies to menus, thoughtful changes in San Leandro schools have created safer, more inclusive spaces. Patel says she now sees Muslim students who feel comfortable coming to school in hijab or traditional clothing, who feel safe to ask for what they need to observe Ramadan, practice prayer or eat. She sees Muslim family members taking positions of leadership in the school community.

It’s a stark difference from 2001. But these changes didn’t happen just because San Leandro named itself a safe haven—or even as a result of training multiple stakeholders within the school buildings. Progress required bringing those outside the school on board.

Community-level Actions

Patel stresses the importance of involving families—and the rest of the community—from the beginning. A policy replicated from somewhere else, she says, cannot address the lived experiences of the students and families a school district serves.

“[Students and families] need to know that we’re here not only symbolically or in words, but that we are going to do everything that we can to ensure they are safe, physically and emotionally.”

“It shouldn’t be that you read an article in Teaching Tolerance and then you go, ‘I want to do that. I want to rinse, repeat,’” Patel says. “It should cause you to say, ‘Huh, I wonder who’s keeping their kids home in our school district. I wonder who’s not eating free lunch or accessing free mental health counseling or not feeling seen and heard in my school district. I wonder who’s feeling like they have to keep most of their identity at home.’ …

“It should cause you to ask those questions and not come from a place as if you already know.”

In Oakland, the Sanctuary Task Force solicited input from families, local unions and local nonprofit workers. Nicole Knight says community meetings ultimately led to community activities, including “Know Your Rights” sessions, training in ICE protocol for those outside the schools, and film screenings and panels that addressed current events impacting immigrant families.

“The point of that is really the longer-term work of building cross-racial and cross-cultural alliances and solidarity so that we’re really building a community and spaces where people have the tools and the resources and the knowledge to stand up for themselves and their community,” Knight explains.

Those alliances also include a network of pro-bono legal resources, mental health professionals and community advocates the district can contact. Having these networks in place is invaluable during a crisis when educators need to help secure legal representation, temporary caretakers and trauma-informed care for students whose family members have been detained.

Here are some steps districts and schools can take at the community level:

  • Find allies and partners.
  • Create a resource list, and keep it in the office and online.
  • Hold “Know Your Rights” sessions and community trainings.
  • Work with families to develop emergency plans.

For more resources and recommendations, check out the toolkit for this story.

Creating Small Sanctuaries

Not all educators will have the same access to institutional support and expansive community resources as those in Oakland and San Leandro.

Even so, Knight says, individual educators have power to shape the experiences of students and families. Teachers can mitigate a lot of harm with trauma-informed, inclusive classroom practices that prioritize student well-being, interrupt bigotry and include immigrant students’ cultures and experiences in curricula.

Educators also have many opportunities to include immigrant families. They can research best practices for serving English language learners. They can ensure all correspondence is translated into home languages. They can ask how field trips, athletics, the classroom library or even snack time can be more inclusive. Patel says efforts with less institutional infrastructure should have the same starting point as with district-wide sanctuary initiatives: “Get community voice.”

To ensure authentic connection with the community, educators will have to be, as Knight puts it, “unapologetically sanctuary” in their practice.

“This notion of being unafraid educators is extremely important for our community,” she says. “[Students and families] need to know that we’re here not only symbolically or in words, but that we are going to do everything that we can to ensure they are safe, physically and emotionally.”

Paul Chavez recommends educators in more hostile climates still get “Know Your Rights” information and emergency preparedness kits out to families and fellow staff members. He recommends encouraging families to create preparedness kits to ensure children are safe and an attorney is contacted if their guardian is detained.

Ultimately, educators should remember that this work isn’t radical, Roseann Torres says. “The law is that all children are allowed a free public education.”

Illustration of someone holding an umbrella over someone else.

Building Something Better

Early in her tenure as a classroom teacher in San Leandro, Dr. Sonal Patel also worked as a Spanish language translator for family conferences and afterschool meetings.

“I was bearing witness to all the pain and fear and frustration and confusion the families were holding,” she says. “It made me really empathetic to how hard it is to interface with schools.”

That pain and confusion are only compounded when communities face a crisis, be it the deportation of family members or a pandemic that spotlights gaps in access to health care and resources. That fear and frustration are only intensified when a child’s learning or well-being is endangered and it feels like no one is listening.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when undocumented students and families may hesitate to seek help for fear of ICE, educators in San Leandro have focused on meeting them where they are. Staff have called families and unaccompanied minors, visiting homes and shelters to ensure students have food, Chromebooks and Wi-Fi.

In Oakland, when educators realized that the CARES Act provided no support for undocumented people, they started a fundraiser. It raised more than $220,000 for undocumented families in its first month.

But challenges remain. As a new school year begins in the midst of a pandemic, plans to keep school communities safe change day to day. Many schools lack either the will or infrastructure to quickly communicate plans to families who don’t speak English—an equity issue that will affect enrollment, learning and family engagement. Many families are forced, once again, to determine their children’s safety with little support.

That is why, for advocates across the country, sanctuaries and safe havens are more than translated words. They are more than a promise. They are a reckoning with history and an unequal system.

They are better places, built from within.

Protections for undocumented students have long been encoded in U.S. law.

The most significant of these is the Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe. After the state of Texas passed a law defunding K-12 education for undocumented students, the Tyler Independent School District created a policy to charge undocumented families tuition fees for public education. In 1977, four families sued the district, claiming that the policy was unconstitutional. James Plyler, Tyler ISD’s superintendent, was named the defendant.

The case made it to the Supreme Court. In 1982, the court ruled that denying public education based on citizenship status was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Enrollment in public schools could not be denied because students were undocumented.

Even before Plyler, however, two landmark moments in 1974 paved the way for recognizing undocumented students’ right to public education. In Lau v. Nichols, the court affirmed that English language learners had a right to resources providing equitable access to education. And the Equal Educational Opportunities Act passed by Congress that year declared “that all children enrolled in public schools are entitled to equal educational opportunity without regard to race, color, sex or national origin.”

In addition to ensuring enrollment, schools also have legal standing for refusing to share students’ personal information without a signed warrant from a judge. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires schools to have permission from caregivers before releasing any personal information from a student’s records, even to law enforcement.

Taken together, these laws and legal precedents paint a clear picture: Sanctuary schools, despite critics’ words, are not running afoul of the law; they are upholding it.

About the Author

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