By Allen Payton
Stepping into the national debate on illegal immigration and its possible impact on students, and following the recommendations by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Antioch Superintendent Stephanie Anello posted a letter to parents and guardians on the district’s website, recently, in an attempt to allay fears some students have been expressing to staff.
Although the AUSD Board has not declared the district a sanctuary, as the Contra Costa Community College District did, last month, Anello felt it necessary to send the message, following receipt of a letter from the ACLU sent out on December 12, to all Superintendents in California.
In their letter, the ACLU recommends superintendents “Designate your schools as sanctuary ‘safe zones’ for students and families with irregular immigration status” and to “Send a strong message to district and school staff, students, and families in your community, affirming your district’s values of diversity and inclusion, and making clear that unlawful discrimination against students will not be tolerated.” The letter also encourages superintendents to “Take measures to ensure that district and school staff, students, and families understand that all students in your district are guaranteed equal access to school, regardless of their or their families’ immigration status.”
The ACLU further recommends superintendents “Prohibit any communications with federal agencies or officials and refuse all voluntary information-sharing with federal or immigration agents across all aspects of the district to the fullest extent possible under the law” and “Prohibit staff, campus security, or campus police from divulging any information regarding immigration status or country of birth of any student or their family members. Require federal or immigration agents seeking information or access to a school site to have a warrant signed by a federal or state judge.”
In her message Anello wrote “Our students are sharing with school staff concerns they have for themselves, their parents, and other loved ones who may have an irregular immigration status.” Further she wrote, “the AUSD will not, to the extent possible by law, share the immigration status of any student or any student’s parent/guardian with federal agencies or officials.”
However, in responding to questions about the letter, Anello said that the district is “not required nor do we ask the immigration status of students,” and that they have “no way of knowing if a student was here illegally as immigration status is not part of the enrollment process.”
Following is Anello’s complete message:
Message from the Superintendent: An Open Letter to Parents/Guardians
Dear Parents and Guardians,
Recently, while not in our District but throughout the country and in California, there has been an increase of reported incidents and actions which are predicated on hate such as racial slurs, taunting, and intimidation of students. There has also been an increase of fears surrounding immigration and, along with it, deportation. Our students are sharing with school staff concerns they have for themselves, their parents, and other loved ones who may have an irregular immigration status. This open letter to all Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) families is intended to allay some of those fears and to reaffirm our commitment to ensure school is a safe place for all students.
AUSD values diversity and inclusion; unlawful discrimination against any student will not be tolerated. The California and federal Constitutions as well as long standing federal and state civil rights statutes affirm that every student in our state must be provided with an educational environment that is safe and welcoming regardless of the student’s race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetics, or disability. Thus, AUSD will continue to work tirelessly to prevent such discrimination and will take decisive steps against any individual who threatens that right.
Muslim and immigrant students are especially vulnerable at this time in our nation’s history. Please know that the AUSD will not, to the extent possible by law, share the immigration status of any student or any student’s parent/guardian with federal agencies or officials. Additionally, we will require that all federal immigration agents seeking access to information or access to a school site have a warrant signed by a federal or state judge.
In closing, please know that AUSD will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that all of our students feel safe, valued, and appreciated. As always, we encourage our families and those in the greater community to partner with us in this work.
When asked if the board authorized or directed her to write the message, Anello simply responded, “no.”
When asked why that was necessary to write if obtaining a warrant is already the legal requirement, she responded, “All warrants must be signed by a federal or state judge.”
Asked if the district had become a “sanctuary”, she said, “No, I believe PUSD (Pittsburg Unified School District) declared themselves a sanctuary district, but you might want to check. We have not.”
“My letter is meant to allay fears that students are safe while in schools,”Anello added.
Asked about educating students who are here illegally, she provided the following explanation.
“We are not required nor do we ask the immigration status of students,” Anello explained. “Additionally, undocumented students between the ages of 6-18 not only have a right to attend school in California, but are mandated to attend school pursuant to the compulsory attendance laws. (Educ. Code § 48200.) The U.S. Supreme Court has held that no state may deny access to a basic public education to any child residing within the state, whether residing in the U.S. legally or not. (Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).) Further, all students have a right to be in a public school learning environment free from discrimination, harassment, bullying, violence, and intimidation. (Educ. Code §§ 220, 234 et seq.)”
Asked if the district risked losing federal funds by not following the law and reporting the illegal status of students, she reiterated, “We would have no way of knowing if a student was here illegally as immigration status is not part of the enrollment process.”
Anello responded to a further question asking if the district has no way of knowing the legal status of a student, why she didn’t simply write that in her letter.
“The letter was meant to allay fears that somehow immigration or other law enforcement branch could come on campus without a warrant signed by a federal or state judge to retrieve information about a student’s immigration status, etc.,” she stated. “We are bound by federal and state law to ensure that all students attend school feeling safe. When students and families continued to share their fears about the issues outlined in the letter, we have a duty to respond in my opinion. The letter is, in short, an attempt to ensure students are feeling safe at school.”
Trustee Crystal Sawyer-White was the first board member to respond when asked if she had seen Anello’s letter.
“Yes,” Sawyer-White responded. “I agree with our superintendent in regards to our children’s safety pertaining to immigration status. Based on a recent Deer Valley HS video, produced by the students, one can only empathize [with] the anxiety each student experiences.”
Board President Walter Ruehlig responded to the same questions asked of Anello.
“As has been previously noted by Superintendent Anello, the Board neither approved, nor even pre-read, the letter she put out on the school website. We simply do not edit the website,” he said. “I take the Superintendent’s word that she was reacting first and foremost not to the ACLU but to concerns of parents and students, many who are super anxious. I wouldn’t know where to begin on the reasons for the troubled climate, founded or unfounded.”
“I can only wish that both sides would start by lowering the volume,” Ruehlig continued. “Then maybe we can separate fact from unfact. Administration supporters and detractors, alike, can agree that we live in hyper-volatile times with disquieting misinformation running rampant. If the Superintendent was able to quell at least some of the hysteria, then I say it is for the good.”
As for echoing the language ‘irregular’ immigration, personally I would not have used that word. I don’t like double talk and the plain-speaking terms undocumented or illegal are fine by me,” he stated. “As for tacitly endorsing doing anything against the law, I didn’t see that in the Superintendent’s letter. It certainly won’t happen on my watch.”
“Hopefully we can move from rumor and hysteria to dialogue and constructive action and that people of good faith on both political sides can get sweeping immigration reform to finally become reality,” Ruehlig added.
An email was also sent to Board Vice President Debra Vinson asking for her responses to the questions and their thoughts on the letter. Please check back later for any responses from her.