A room full of hopes for shelter, comfort and certainty for the county’s immigrant students and their families were pinned to a two-page resolution adopted by a unanimous Palm Beach County School Board Wednesday night.
The resolution is yet another voice in a growing chorus of Florida school districts announcing that schools will protect their students’ rights to safety and privacy as federal policy seeks to deport more and more people living in the country illegally.
“This is a chance for the School Board to send a message to immigrants and their families that they are valued,” said Tim Gamwell, assistant executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center.
The resolution doesn’t create new policy, but it does declare the district’s position that it won’t allow federal authorities on campus or give them confidential student information unless they come with a court order.
Before board members cast their votes, nearly a dozen parents, students, teachers, a pediatrician, a guidance counselor and others stepped to the microphone to applaud the resolution and share their stories of fear and stress.
“I would like to speak on behalf of Palm Beach County mothers, many of whom have a lot of fear,” mother of five Natividad Jimenez said with Gamwell interpreting. “When we go to leave our children at school, we don’t know if immigration will be waiting in the corners when we drop our children off. Help us and support us and support our children. Even our children who are born here are afraid their parents will be deported and they’ll be left here alone. For this reason we’re asking your support.”
The resolution’s preamble notes that the district operates under long-standing laws and court decisions that demand that even students in the country illegally be educated and have their privacy protected.
But that protection isn’t common knowledge in the immigrant community, or even sometime the front office staff, Superintendent Robert Avossa said.
The resolution is a way to spell out the protections to parents and residents as well as the district’s 24,000 employees, Avossa said.
So, any requests from federal agents to gather confidential student information or to walk onto school property should be directed to the district’s lawyers and school police.
The district will train staff on student rights, particularly of students who are learning English, and also on how to support the needs of immigrant students and their families.
The school police will “continue to exercise discretion and limit the referral of all students to the criminal justice system only as a last resort or when mandated by law.”
In this time of heightened immigration enforcement, bullying that targets a student’s status has cropped up and the resolution acknowledges the need for prevention programs to address that.
It also seeks to help students, be it counselors making sure students know what college and career opportunities await regardless of immigration status to working with organizations to help families create Safety Plans should a parent be deported.
“We need to send a message to the entire county, to parents of all races, that we’re not going to tolerate hate or accept the bigotry … all of our children are going to be protected,” said Victoria Mesa- Estrada, representing South Olive Elementary School’s advisory council.
The resolution also clears any uncertainty school administrators may have when an organization seeks to host events such as “Know Your Rights” workshops for parents and families, the Guatemalan-Maya Center’s Gamwell said.
Board members applauded the resolution. Board member Marcia Andrews said she wanted to see what more schools and staff can do to “make sure students and their families are protected.”
Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said he was pleased that the discussion did not become politically heated. “You focused 100 percent on the children of this county.”