When Junior Venus Gutierrez moved to the U.S. from Venezuela at 5 years old, her mom gave her a script to memorize in case an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was to question her. Even after becoming a U.S. citizen less than a month ago, Gutierrez still has that script memorized.
Junior Arch Calibo, who just had his green-card renewed a couple weeks ago, remembers praying for his aunt’s safety after she had been detained by immigration officials when he was 5 years old.
These are the fears that many immigrant children face every day.
And on Feb. 7, a third grade boy at Briarwood Elementary lived these fears when he was taken from Briarwood into protective custody of the state at the end of the school day. According to Catalina Velarde, the lawyer representing the family of the boy, the PV police were notified by ICE after his mom was detained by ICE agents, and a PVPD officer drove the boy to the Department for Children and Families in Olathe.
Velarde said the whole incident was “traumatizing” for the boy. He didn’t want to go to school the next day she said, dreading to face the many students in the school’s after care program who watched him ride away in a police car.
The boy’s family is just one of the examples of ICE’s recent increase in the detentions of immigrants and asylum seekers, noted by Executive Director of The National Immigrant Justice Center Mary Meg McCarthy and her colleagues. She attributes this increase to a new policy implemented by the Department of Homeland Security that targets anyone who may be considered deportable without “prosecutorial discretion.”
But while McCarthy thinks policies from districts can help, she also makes sure her clients understand their rights in case they are stopped by an ICE agent or other immigration official.
“It is important that members of the community seek legal advice and create a safety plan in case they are arrested, detained and deported,” McCarthy said.
While the whole family involved in the Briarwood incident was released from custody, they are currently in a legal battle fighting deportation according to Velarde.
Velarde said that the mother of the boy had given emergency contacts to the school, knowing that her and the father’s undocumented status put them at risk for detainment.
But when the mother was detained by ICE at the family’s apartment while her 2-year-old daughter was taken into PV police protective custody, the school did not call the third grade boy’s father, who at the time was not in detention and could have picked him up, according to Velarde.
However, Velarde said that even though the father wasn’t contacted, neither were any of the boy’s other emergency contacts.
When contacted about Velarde’s claim that administrators failed to contact any of the boy’s relatives or emergency contacts, the district declined to comment.
After an interview was requested over e-mail, superintendent Jim Hinson, head of family services Rob Bell, director of safety and security John Douglass, East area education board member Donna Bysfield and Briarwood principal Chris Lash wouldn’t comment on the alleged incident in order to protect the privacy of students involved.
Director of communications Shawna Samuels did however reiterate the district’s policy in an email to the Harbinger that “a building principal will contact a parent, guardian, or representative ‘when students are removed from school for any reason.’”
Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, feels that the way the situation was handled violates the district’s policy and plan of action in the case of an emergency. Bonney and the ACLU are currently drafting a letter of concern to superintendent Jim Hinson.
“It appears that the administration at Briarwood didn’t try to call the father about this when they decided not to let the kid get on the bus and didn’t call any emergency contacts either,” Bonney said. “The school officials had no direct knowledge on what was going on and they just decided that they would take matters into their own hands in a pretty goofy way.”
After the event at Briarwood was reported by KMBC in March, many concerned parents, like SMSD Watchdog member Karen Loggia, wanted answers about what happened. The district published an official statement on their website, and reiterated that statement at school board meetings and in response to an interview request from the Harbinger.
“While we cannot comment on individual student matters, we can confirm that there was never an ICE agent on our school property,” Samuels said. “No child was removed from a classroom by ICE or the local police, and no child was arrested.”
Velarde agrees that the boy was put into protective custody and was not actually arrested, but she feels like the incident was handled poorly by the district. Velarde believes that a change in policy is needed to ensure that issues regarding immigration and ICE will be handled properly in the future.
“One of the things that we’d like to see from this incident is for SMSD to have a better process and policy for dealing with families of mixed immigration status,” Velarde said. “We encourage the district to issue a proclamation like KCK and KCMO public schools have done, to show that they are a welcoming and safe environment for students.”
On Feb. 28, the KCK school district’s education board passed a resolution which expanded on its past policies, stating that ICE agents are not allowed to remove undocumented students from school without a warrant. Then on March 22, KCMO school board passed a similar “Welcoming Schools” policy.
“[The new policy] didn’t change anything technically, but we know, given everything happening in the country and locally, that there are a lot of families with concerns,” said the KCK district’s chief of public affairs David Smith. “Part of what we are trying to do [with the policy] is explain that as far as we know and as far as what ICE has said publicly, we don’t believe you need to be concerned about it.”
Smith acknowledges the fact that the KCK School District has different demographics than SMSD, and he doesn’t believe that SMSD necessarily needs to expand on their policies protecting students from ICE.
“I think we were trying to be responsive to concerns in our own community, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to tell somebody how to do their work,” Smith said. “It’s not my community, and I think the folks at SMSD have a good understanding of their community.”
With ICE’s spike in detainments recently, Bonney said that there are many undocumented families in SMSD who could be affected by events like the one at Briarwood. According to SMSD director of curriculum, Dr. Darren Denis, 11.61 percent of SMSD students speak English as a second language. There are a total of 76 different languages that are spoken throughout the district, not counting English.
While no districts collect information on immigrants or undocumented students, in a Harbinger poll of 310 students, 10 said they were not legal citizens of the United States.
Gutierrez, who became a legalized United States citizen just three weeks ago, remembers some of the difficulties and fears of being an immigrant child going through the education system.
“My mom would tell me, ‘If a lawyer comes up and talks to you, you need to say ‘this this and this’,” Gutierrez said. “My mom always tells me that I used to say I wanted to go back [to Venezuela] because it was all too much for me, that pressure that you have to do this and you have to say the right thing.”
Not only are those like Gutierrez who are affected by ICE and detainment upset about the lack of communication between the district and the school community after the incident at Briarwood, but so are concerned families in the Shawnee Mission area.
Many SMSD parents, like Loggia and the Watchdogs, feel that parents deserve to know about the safety of their students.
The Watchdogs are a coalition of students, parents and community members who follow SMSD and their policies closely. Loggia and the Watchdogs brought up the incident at a recent school board meeting, and Loggia said that there was a disconnect of communication about some details of what happened.
“It’s clear that the school district said one thing, the people at the school said something else and the parents in the classroom said something else,” Loggia said. “And that highlights a problem that there are these disparate stories of what happened.”
Loggia was especially disappointed with the apathy the district showed when communicating with parents about the topic.
“This [incident] was particularly concerning because we’ve seen other school districts approach this topic differently,” Loggia said. “[Other districts] took more compassionate approaches and reached out to the community in a more constructive way.”
Bonney believes that in order to give families peace of mind, SMSD should not only reiterate their pre-existing policies, but also make sure to have clear, set-in-stone plans on how to handle these situations in the future.
“The fact of the matter is that there are many undocumented families who have their kids in the SMSD,” Bonney said. “So the district has an opportunity to try to allay people’s concerns about this and make it so they know their children will be safe.”
Loggia believes that adopting a new policy about ICE agents is not necessary for SMSD; she thinks instead, the district should focus on making a new outreach policy that emphasizes reassuring the community that their “kids are safe.”
“[This incident is] illustrative of the bigger picture issue that parents are feeling like they need more information,” Loggia said. “Our community has changed, the way people communicate has changed, and the district needs to adapt to recognize how we’ve evolved.”