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Denver principals denounce family separation policies, reassure immigrants that schools are safe for their children

Flanked by principals and fellow board members, Angela Cobián denounces the impact of family separation on students at a press conference at West High School. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)
Flanked by principals and fellow board members, Angela Cobián denounces the impact of family separation on students at a press conference at West High School. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

“Disgusted” and “physically ill” — that’s how Denver principal Kayla Grayson-Yizar described her reaction and that of her colleagues as they watched recent news coverage of children forcibly separated from their immigrant parents on America’s southern border. Their thoughts quickly turned to their own immigrant and refugee students, who, with every new immigration restriction, every loss of legal protection, and every raid or arrest, are increasingly fearful for themselves and their families, Grayson-Yizar said.

“When children enter our buildings, they will always be safe and protected,” she said.

Grayson-Yizar, who is the principal at Florida Pitt Waller ECE–8 in far northeast Denver, was among several dozen people — principals, administrators, and school board members, among them — who gathered on the steps of Denver’s West High School Wednesday to call for an end to “forcible and traumatic separation of children from their parents.”

The push for this gathering came from a group of building principals, who also asked the district to put more resources into schools to support the emotional needs of the students most likely to be affected by changes to federal immigration policy and enforcement.

The principals wrote an open letter to school board members Tuesday, stating: “We also know that the faces of those children suffering these traumatic events at the border often reflect the faces of many of Denver Public Schools’ own school children, thereby possibly triggering secondary trauma and extreme fear in our Latinx and immigrant communities.”

School has been out for the summer in Denver since the end of May, but the principals said they wanted to reassure local families that their children will be protected at school and that they recognize the impact the news might be having on students.

The letter will be translated into the nine major languages, in addition to English, that are in use in the district: Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, French, Nepali, Burmese, and Russian.

School board members voted to adopt a resolution based on the letter and promised a full vote on a longer resolution at their next meeting in August.

Teresa Sena-Klava, principal at West Leadership Academy, one of the schools on the West High campus, said her staff is reaching out by phone and during home visits with families to see how students are doing.

And Christian Sawyer, a principal at Hamilton Middle School in southeast Denver, said at the gathering that his message to students and families is: “Please feel safe to come back to school in the fall.” As a school leader, he brought in trauma counselors last year to help students worried about immigration issues.

His students, he said, have “incredible fear for their families and their own safety,” and they have a lot of questions, such as “Am I going to be able to go home to see my family, maybe in another country? Is my parent going to be detained or deported?”

About 76 percent of the nearly 93,000 students in Denver Public Schools are children of color, and 37 percent are learning English. Denver students speak 140 different languages.

The district does not collect information about students’ immigration status, so it does not have a count of how many students — or their family members — are undocumented.

Denver Public Schools administrators and board members have publicly and unanimously stressed support for immigrants students, teachers, and employees, and since the election of President Donald Trump, they said they have no intention of cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

In February 2017, the Denver school board passed a resolution saying the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement.

“Above all else, this is for our students to have their fear replaced by confidence and hope,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a press conference at the time.

In September, after Trump ordered the end of a federal program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, Boasberg issued a statement calling the move “shortsighted, heartless, and harmful.”

Denver Public Schools was the first district in the country in 2013 to hire teachers who’d gotten work permits through the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Denver school principals and teachers repeatedly walked out with their students to protest Trump’s election and his order to end DACA. Although the district didn’t organize or promote the walkouts, officials said they respected students’ right to demonstrate.

In January, the district announced it would no longer require families to show “proof paperwork,” such a child’s birth certificate, to participate in the process of choosing a school for the following year. The change was meant to assuage the fears of undocumented families wary of providing the district with personal information, given the national political climate.

In February, the Denver school board passed another resolution urging Congress to protect young undocumented immigrants by “providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.” The resolution also pledged to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores [fighters] in us,” said board member Angela Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver.

But in responding to family separation, the principals cited a October 2017 school board resolution that expressed the district’s commitment to become a “trauma-informed school district.” That means the district recognizes the ways that trauma affects students’ development and works to mitigate the impacts at school.

Standing on the steps of West High School, Cobián shared some of her own family’s dramatic stories of immigration. She also talked about students she knew when she was a teacher who suffered because their parents were in immigration detention or prison well before Trump was president.

The administration has officially ended its policy of family separation, replacing it with one of detaining families together, but it’s not clear how or when children already in detention will be reunited with their families. Many parents have already been deported, while others remain in adult detention facilities. Children are being held in youth shelters, sent to live with foster families, or placed with relatives. Now, though, relatives sometimes fear coming forward because the office in charge of resettlement is sharing information with immigration authorities.

Sena-Klava said she doesn’t know if any of the children separated from their parents in recent weeks will end up in Denver Public Schools. But she does know the schools will continue to educate children who have fled war, who have lived in refugee camps, who have made perilous journeys to get here, who have lost family members and friends in their home countries or along the way.

“We will have more students coming,” she said. “The school must be a safe place. When a student comes in, we treat them with respect and love.”

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