Photo credit: Paratodo

On Thursday, members of the Philadelphia School Board met with Juntos, a South Philadelphia-based Latinx immigrant organization, to discuss the possible implementation of a new resolution aimed at limiting ICE and police involvement in public schools. The meeting came after a Monday press conference held by Juntos on the steps of the School District of Philadelphia as they formally announced the release of their Sanctuary Schools Campaign. The campaign, which is outlined in their Philadelphia School Board Resolution, includes a multi-pronged platform consisting of five “core principles”: criminalization-free schools, a reinvestment in education, community-controlled schools, a culturally-responsive pedagogy, and restorative learning environments.

Organizers say the campaign was catalyzed by two major events over the last year: the coronavirus pandemic and the arrest of a pregnant immigrant mother by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last year in front of her child’s school in South Philadelphia.

“That moment really sparked widespread fear and concern within the community around ICE involvement in schools, but also because of the institutionalized response from the school district,” said Zia Kandler, a community organizer with Juntos. “Although the principals and teachers were really committed to showing up for community members to ensure that community members felt like there was a response from the school on an institutional level, what we’ve seen is that there wasn’t a whole lot of response, and since then there hasn’t been a huge reworking or training, nor conversation around how to best support undocumented families and students within the district.”

A spokesperson for the Philadelphia School Board and the Philadelphia School District did not respond to requests by Prism to comment on the meeting or the resolution. 

Philadelphia is already a sanctuary city, but organizers say the city’s school district and school board have not expressed clear guidelines or training for how school staff should interact with ICE. Juntos conducted a survey of 350 employees in the Philadelphia School District and found that there were widespread uncertainties among teachers and administrators about ICE policies. While the survey was live, the school district re-sent an updated copy of the school district’s 58-page toolkit to educators and staff, but the survey found that only 28% of respondents read it.

“We actually expected the numbers to be much higher in terms of folks that were aware of [the toolkit,] but unfortunately that didn’t translate into teachers or administrators knowing what it was about or having read it,” Kandler said. “That really speaks to how much we need training and an orientation for teachers and administrators. The survey results show that it doesn’t have to do with just one teacher or one administrator. There are systematic uncertainties about how to respond.”

Several groups and city leaders have already expressed support for the Sanctuary Schools Campaign, including the Our City Our Schools coalition and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

“If Philly is truly a sanctuary city, then it is only right that our schools act as safe havens for our young people to grow and learn,” said Philadelphia City Councilwoman Kendra Brooks. “I stand united with our undocumented neighbors in denouncing the terror and violence perpetuated by ICE and demanding safe schools for all.”

In addition to demanding clear rules for how schools interact with ICE, organizers are also calling for police-free schools by removing school resource officers and “criminalizing equipment” like metal detectors and other surveillance technology. They say these are important steps that must be taken to end the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. The school district currently spends $30 million a year on these forms of school safety, and organizers want those funds reallocated toward other student services.

“Metal detectors bring so many more problems into schools and it makes a lot of kids late for their classes,” said Edgar Villegas, a high school senior in the Philadelphia School District and a community organizer with Juntos. “Students have started rebelling against it and going around [to another entrance] to try to get into school because there’s no point in having it.”

The fight for ‘restorative learning environments’

In 2013, the Philadelphia School District closed down 23 schools, creating the current overpopulation of schools in the area today. Many Philadelphia school buildings have also faced problems for years that pose health risks, including asbestos, poor ventilation, leaky pipes and ceilings, and sewage. Organizers say these problems create a harmful learning environment for students, many of which expected to return to classrooms on Monday, March 8.

Maria Mendez, a high school junior and a youth leader with Juntos, attends a school in Philadelphia that she says is located in a more privileged area, but she says she is aware of the problems that exist in other schools and wants to take action to ensure that students feel safe and supported.

“I go into other public schools to pick up my cousin or my little sister sometimes, and I’m just amazed and shocked at how low-funded they are,” she said. “Asbestos can cause cancer. I don’t want my little sister or anybody to get cancer from going to school.”

Both Villegas and Mendez say fixing school buildings should take precedence for the school district, followed by implementing translation services. They say students in the area are also having their needs ignored, especially as it relates to mental health. Currently, there is only one counselor for every 950 students in the school district.

“I feel like the school district doesn’t prioritize mental and physical health enough, and that just doesn’t sit right with me” Mendez said.

The pandemic has laid bare many additional inequities in the Philadelphia School District, especially when it comes to translation services and access to technology. Since schools across the country were forced to move online, communication between teachers, parents, and students has never been more important. But for parents who aren’t fluent in English, there are additional hurdles to ensuring their child receives proper access to a quality education.

“To me, a sanctuary school is more than not having ICE or police,” Mendez said. “A sanctuary school is where students can feel safe and comfortable. It means schools putting more money into books and education and having more translators there. I’m a Mexican woman. My mom understands English to an extent. She speaks it to an extent, but I just feel like [the district] doesn’t prioritize [translators] … People should be able to communicate with their kid’s teacher.”

Villegas says he wants the school board to know that students and parents want to be more involved in the conversations around school reopenings, culturally-inclusive curriculum, and other issues.

“We need the school district to start listening to us,” he said. “Listen to us and what the community wants and needs. We need more money and we need better schools.”

After Thursday’s meeting between Juntos and several members of the school board, Kandler seemed optimistic. Both groups plan to meet again next month to discuss how best to move forward, and said the members have committed to bringing the resolution to the rest of the school board for feedback.

“We look forward to this collaboration with the School Board and their ongoing commitment to immigrant students and families,” said Kandler in an emailed statement to Prism after the meeting. “We appreciate their recognition that passing our Sanctuary Schools Resolution is an active way for the School Board to publicly commit to supporting immigrant students and families with the school district.

Carolyn Copeland

Carolyn Copeland is a staff reporter and copy editor at Prism. She covers racial justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.