Are welcoming words from CMS enough to quell student fears in immigration crackdown?

At Starmount elementary school, the trauma of immigration raids isn’t theoretical. It hit hard when an 8-year-old got home from school earlier this month to find his father missing, detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, says Principal Nancy Martinez.

At this south Charlotte school, where 70 percent of students are Hispanic, Martinez and her staff talk to children and families about having an emergency plan for “what to do if Mommy and Daddy aren’t home by 6.”

Martinez says a supportive video message from Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, accompanied by promises of more trauma training from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on the horizon, brought her to tears of gratitude.

Others are more skeptical that CMS is delivering on Wilcox’s pledge of support in a meaningful way.

On Feb. 15, three days after he made an emotional speech at a school board meeting, CMS sent principals a video of Wilcox telling students that “we will do everything within our power to protect you, to keep you safe. We will certainly work within the laws of this country to make sure that your status is protected under federal and state statute. We will do what it takes.”

The district included a transcript of Wilcox’s remarks in Spanish and English and a four-page handout from the University of Missouri’s Disaster and Community Crisis Center titled “Helping your child cope with media coverage of disasters: A fact sheet for parents.”

Silvia Sanchez, whose fourth-grader attends Highland Renaissance Academy, said that she was unsatisfied with the district’s statement.

“There’s nothing concrete. It doesn’t say anything,” she said. “It says they’ll work with the kids but it doesn’t say when. It says they’ll help the kids, but it doesn’t say how.”

CMS leaders say they’re trying to strike a balance at a time when immigration is a community flashpoint. On Monday, hundreds took to the streets to protest the increased ICE presence.

Immigrants and supporters march from Marshall Park in Charlotte, NC on Monday, February 18, 2019. Local groups came together to protest the recent arrests conducted by ICE in the Charlotte area. Jeff Siner

Fear spurs absences

An attendance tally provided at the Observer’s request hints at the disruption accompanying the heightened ICE enforcement that started the first week of February. Over a period of seven days, ICE agents detained approximately 275 people. During the first four days of that week, ICE agents detained 200 people across North Carolina, saying it was a response to decisions by sheriffs in Mecklenburg and Wake counties to stop notifying ICE about the immigration status of inmates, the Observer reported.

That Friday CMS logged 11,859 absences — an increase of 3,500, or 42 percent, over the same date in 2017. Immigration activists cited the surge in absences as one symptom of the fear pervading communities that feel targeted.

CMS spokesman Tracy Russ says there’s no way to be sure why students missed school, nor to link absences to the immigration status of students and their family members. But he said this week that district officials continue to hear reports of students staying home because their parents are afraid of the raids.

“I think it’s fair to say that families are fearful ... and there has been some impact on attendance,” Russ said.

Héctor Vaca, the organizing director at Action NC, said that parents have been hesitant to take their children to bus stops out of fear that ICE agents would be present there.

Martinez, the Starmount principal, said even rumors can drive her school’s attendance down.

That happened at the end of last week, when false social media reports said ICE would conduct raids during Charlotte’s All-Star weekend, and again during Monday’s protest, she said.

Part of the message of support from CMS has been reminding families that the district does not ask for information about the residency status of students or their families. That means there’s no way of knowing exactly how many students are directly or indirectly threatened by raids and deportation.

But CMS has the largest immigrant enrollment in North Carolina, with more than 21,000 students classified as English learners and more than 44,000 who come from homes where English isn’t the first language.

What can CMS do?

The district planned a symposium for elementary school counselors, social workers and psychologists on Friday and one for their counterparts in middle and high schools Feb. 27. Those sessions will offer training on trauma related to ICE raids and “creating safe, supportive, culturally affirming school environments for immigrant students and students from marginalized groups,” according to the material sent to principals and shared with the public.

The handout about media coverage of disasters, which was provided by the CMS student services department, doesn’t directly address immigration. Instead, it talks about comforting children, assuring them they’re safe, limiting their media consumption and reminding them about the good things in the world.

Russ said it’s up to principals to decide how to use the material. He said the district’s focus is on creating a welcoming school environment for children and dealing with their trauma.

Sanchez, the Highland Renaissance parent, said a more effective response would be for schools to offer workshops for parents trying to help their children navigate the climate of fear and uncertainty. She said her 10-year-old son Israel has become increasingly anxious that his parents may not be home when he returns from school.

Maura Trejo, who has a child at South Mecklenburg High School, said that school officials beyond those in central CMS administration must become more informed about how heightened ICE activity has affected the immigrant community.

“Oftentimes, the people at the top say, ‘We’re going to do this and that,’ but if their employees aren’t even aware of what’s happening, nothing’s going to change,” Trejo said.

Communicating with families and students who aren’t yet fluent in English can pose a further challenge. While Spanish-speakers account for about 70 percent of the language-minority students in CMS, the district reports about 200 languages spoken by students and their families.

Principal Martinez says she and others at Starmount are fluent in Spanish. Her school has a smaller group of Vietnamese immigrants, and when staff need to speak with parents they use a dial-up translation service that CMS provides.

She and the parents who spoke echoed the same theme: The fear of losing parents is real, and it ripples through schools and neighborhoods even when individual students may not be at risk.

“We’re a small school,” Martinez said. “It’s like family.”

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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.