Politics & Government

Wake officials say they’ll protect undocumented students ‘to the fullest extent of the law’

Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore on protecting undocumented students

Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore speaks in English and Spanish at the March 5, 2019 school board meeting about what the district is doing to protect the rights of undocumented students to get an education.
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Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore speaks in English and Spanish at the March 5, 2019 school board meeting about what the district is doing to protect the rights of undocumented students to get an education.

Wake County school leaders are reassuring undocumented students and their families that their constitutionally guaranteed right to get an education will be protected in the face of increased immigration arrests.

Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore announced Tuesday that she had met this week with the district’s principals and had shared with them guidance on how to protect the rights of undocumented students. The guidance directs principals to notify Moore if any immigration officers attempt to enter a school or seek information about students or their families.

“We strive to provide a welcoming environment every day where children and families feel safe and supported in the pursuit of learning,” Moore said at the board meeting. “Our counselors, principals and teachers play a critical role in making that happen.

“While we are unable to control immigration issues beyond our campus boundaries, we can ensure a learning environment where legal and educational rights of students and families are protected to the fullest extent of the law.”

Moore, the district’s first Latina superintendent, drew applause from the crowd when she also read her statement in Spanish. Moore came to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 2 years old.

La directora de las escuelas de Wake County habla del distrito y lo que hace para proteger a los derechos de los estudiantes indocumentados el 5 de marzo de 2019.

Moore joins the superintendents of Durham and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in making public statements in support of undocumented students in the aftermath of the recent raids.

Concerns have risen since federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained more than 200 people in February across the state who are thought to be living in the country illegally. ICE officials cited how sheriffs in some large North Carolina counties, including Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg, are no longer notifying them about the legal status of inmates in county jails.

Several community activists showed up at the Feb. 19 school board meeting to urge Wake to do more to protect undocumented students. Activists on Tuesday thanked the school district for the statement but said Wake needs to do even more.

“Our students might feel powerless, but we do have the power to make them feel safer at school and we should use that power to its fullest extent,” Virginia Clayton, a Cary High School teacher, told the school board. “If we wish for all students to fully invest themselves in their education then we must tell them in no uncertain terms that we value their right to access that education.”

On Tuesday, Wake school officials repeatedly cited the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that students are guaranteed the right to attend public schools regardless of their immigration status.

Under ICE policy, schools are considered to be “sensitive locations,” where arrests or interviews are generally not made. Moore said that no ICE officers have ever attempted to enter a Wake school and that she doesn’t expect that to change.

America Moreno Jimenez, a Raleigh high school teacher, urges the Wake County school board on Feb. 19, 2019 to do more to reassure undocumented students in the face of increased ICE raids.

The guidance Moore provided also reminds principals that school resource officers have no immigration enforcement duties. School resource officers are armed law enforcement officers assigned to work in schools.

The guidance also lists under board policy the limited circumstances under which law enforcement officers who are not school resource officers can interview or arrests students on campus.

School board chairman Jim Martin said the district will continue to strictly protect the confidentiality of student records and won’t give records to ICE unless required to do so under the law.

“The fears and anxiety caused by Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests in this area and throughout the state is troubling,” Martin said. “We know the effect that this has on children, on their education and on their families.

“We also recognize that much of this is beyond the reach of the authority of this board. But nevertheless, it is absolutely critical that we do our best to focus on the protections that we can provide as we prepare all children for a better tomorrow.”

Sean Gallagher, Atlanta Field Office Director for U.S. ICE, talks about the increased arrests his office is making and attributed it to Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden's cancellation of the 287g program at the jai.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.