(Photo from Juntos' Facebook page)
An overwhelming majority of the nearly 350 Philadelphia school teachers, administrators and staff who responded to a recent survey said they didn’t know who to notify if a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent came to their school and asked for information about one of their students or the student’s family.
That’s one of the results of a yearlong survey on safety measures for immigrant and refugee students in the School District of Philadelphia that Juntos, the South Philadelphia immigrant rights organization, publicly released February 11.
The survey found that a majority of the respondents had not been trained in how to support undocumented students and families, and that 75% of them said they had not received training on how to navigate ICE presence in schools.
The survey’s release is the first step in Juntos’ campaign for “sanctuary schools.”
For Zia Kandler, a community organizer with Juntos, “sanctuary schools” means schools that are places of healing, free of criminalization, that have “pedagogy that is culturally responsive.” ‘
“Sanctuary,” Kandler said, also entails “community control over schools.”
Juntos is asking the School District of Philadelphia to enact safety measures to protect immigrant youth and families which would include “clear guidelines around ICE interaction” for all teachers, staff, and administration.
The call comes one year after a pregnant mother was detained by ICE outside of a South Philadelphia school, after dropping off her child. The mother was standing at the bus stop in front of Kirkbride School when ICE agents, in plainclothes, detained her.
According to Kandler, some onlookers, including parents and children, thought the woman was being kidnapped.
The agency’s “sensitive locations” memo,, updated this year, ICE is supposed to avoid enforcement in certain locations, including “school bus stops that are marked and/or known to the officer, during periods when school children are present at the stop.”
The arrest sparked widespread fear within the South Philadelphia Latinx community and Juntos wants the district to offer assurances that something like this will not happen again.
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Erica Darken is a fourth grade teacher at Key Elementary School in South Philadelphia. She said last year’s arrest was concerning because of the fear it provoked in immigrant parents.
“Parents are a part of the school community and you want parents to be able to be as involved with their child’s life, including their schooling, as possible,” Darken said. “I want parents to be there when they drop off their kids, I want them to be there at dismissal so that they can raise concerns, I can answer any questions, I can let them know any news of the day.”
Further, she said she has noticed that some parents now believe the school is unsafe. “We had a parent be reluctant to share his address with the school,” she said, “This is a systemic issue.”
Since 2014 Philly has been called a “sanctuary city,” although the City government doesn’t like or use that term. While such a designation does not have an official legal definition, it reflects the fact that the City doesn’t allow City employees — including police officers — to ask about a person’s documentation status. Further, City employees only respond to ICE requests to hold someone if ICE has a judicial, criminal warrant for them (not an administrative ICE warrant).
The City, however, does not stop ICE from arresting Philadelphians the agency believes are undocumented. In 2020 alone, ICE made 2,826 arrests in Philadelphia, according to the agency’s year-end-report.
The arrest outside Kirkbride School in 2020 sparked Juntos’ decision to conduct the yearlong survey. They organization wanted to uncover what teachers and administrators already knew around ICE involvement within the school district.
The School District of Philadelphia recently updated their ‘Immigrant and Refugee Toolkit’ for teachers, staff, and administrators. The toolkit suggests that teachers and administrators are not required to share student information with ICE officials without a warrant. It also directs administrators to contact the district’s Office of General Counsel or the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities if they encounter ICE agents in the schools.
But according to Juntos’ survey results, only 19% of survey respondents were “aware of any measures that the School District of Philadelphia has taken to protect and support undocumented immigrants.”
Fifty-two percent of those who took the Juntos survey, have worked for the district for at least five years, but only 25% of people reported having received any kind of training regarding ICE in schools.
Kandler said,that those numbers are proof that the toolkit “is lacking in effectiveness and also implementation.”
She added that the toolkit needs to provide more “clear rules and clear steps” for how to interact with ICE, and should come with training.
Darken recalled a training on supporting immigrant refugee students that she led in 2017. When wondering about how she would handle an interaction with an ICE agent, she could not remember and had to refer back to her presentation from four years earlier. “That speaks to the fact that we’re not doing enough ongoing training and conversations on how to support our immigrant families,” she said.
Kandler added: “This isn’t an issue around individual teachers’ or staff’s lack of commitment in supporting immigrant students. This feels like a district-wide systemic uncertainty around how to move forward in situations and interactions with ICE.”
Juntos will officially launch their “sanctuary schools” campaign on March 1.
The School District of Philadelphia did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the survey results.-30-
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