Groups ask Wake County schools to protect students from ICE agents

A coalition of 28 community groups urged the Wake County school system on Friday to do more to protect students who are not in the country legally, including declaring schools safe zones from federal immigration agents.

The activists say North Carolina’s largest school system needs to strengthen current protections so that “undocumented” children can feel safe attending public schools. The request comes as school districts around the country respond to a federal immigration crackdown that’s led to an increase in the number of deportations.

“With respect to the chilling effect that potential immigration enforcement actions are having on children’s ability to meaningfully participate in school, we also urge WCPSS to become a Safe Zone and make a public statement opposing the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on WCPSS’s campuses, near school bus sites, or in any way using the public school system to carry out immigration enforcement actions such as interrogations, detentions, or deportations,” says the request sent by the groups.

Some of the groups making the request include El Pueblo, the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, the N.C. Council of Churches, the N.C. Justice Center and Public Schools First NC.

Wake school officials responded that their primary focus is ensuring that students know they are welcome and safe at school. Students who have concerns can talk to school counselors and social workers.

“There may be a lot of anxiety in our families and children in our schools, but we want to let our families know that they have a right to be here and we will respect that and honor that and educate every child that comes through our doors,” said Brenda Elliott, Wake’s assistant superintendent for student support services.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students are guaranteed the right to attend public schools regardless of their immigration status. But students who are not in the country legally can be deported.

Concerns about deportation have risen since President Donald Trump took office. On the Feb. 16 “Day Without Immigrants,” some Wake schools had a significant number of absences as Hispanic students stayed home in protest.

The activists want the Wake County school board to adopt a resolution that says federal immigration enforcement activities on or near district schools “harmfully disrupt the learning environment.” The resolution says Wake should declare that ICE agents can’t come on campus until the request is reviewed by Superintendent Jim Merrill’s office.

Under district policy, law enforcement officers are expected to question or arrest students away from campus on non-school matters unless they have a warrant or it’s considered necessary by the officer.

The resolution also calls on Wake to develop a plan for training school employees on how to respond to requests from ICE personnel asking for information about students or families.

Principals would not know the citizenship status of students since many international students register at the district’s Center for International Enrollment, according to Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman.

Some school districts elsewhere have taken public efforts to reassure families of immigrant students. The Chicago Public School system told principals not to allow ICE agents on campus unless they have a criminal warrant.

In January, Durham Public Schools issued a statement pledging to support immigrant students and oppose federal policies that prevent them from attending school.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui