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News / Northwest

Spokane Public Schools bans Border Patrol agents from entering schools

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 7, 2024, 7:52am

SPOKANE — In an unusually well-attended Wednesday meeting, the Spokane School Board unanimously revised its policy barring Border Patrol access to schools.

The revision serves as a clarification to existing policy, Spokane Public Schools officials said, with added language explicitly preventing staff from allowing immigration officials to enter campuses, unless the superintendent says otherwise.

“It’s to clarify and make it just very clear that Border Patrol should not be in our schools,” Board President Nikki Otero Lockwood said at the Feb. 21 school board meeting at the policy’s first reading.

The revision stems from conversations between district administration and members of the group Latinos En Spokane, an advocacy group that supports the Latino community, who have since 2018 called for such a proposal. Seeing a Border Patrol officer in their school can be traumatizing for Latino or immigrant students, said Jennyfer Mesa, executive director of Latinos En Spokane.

“They could be targeted as immigrants, as having an accent, or if they’re asked for something about their parents, you know, that could be a stressful situation,” Mesa said. “These fears, these stressors, create PTSD for students and families who have experienced whether it’s family separation, whether it’s worries about another family member.”

Mesa said agents can spark tremendous fear and anxiety in students.

“Especially having an agent at your safe space — schools are safe spaces for students and families,” Mesa said. “This is where we come to learn.”

Existing school policy states that Border Patrol’s work doesn’t intersect with schools’ work.

“This is because the district’s obligation to educate the children residing within its borders is not diminished by the children or parents’ immigration status,” the policy states.

The board on Wednesday approved additions, which state in part that staff will not “collaborate with immigration enforcement agencies or share information that could put a student’s security at risk.”

The policy also bars immigration agents as guest speakers in a classroom, Lockwood said.

If a teacher requested a Border Patrol agent as a guest speaker, “they would see related to the policy that our position is that we don’t have Border Patrol in our schools, so it would go back to the staff member who requested it as ‘No,’ “ Lockwood said in an interview Monday.

No one testified against the proposal at the meeting Wednesday. But former Eastern Washington U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt questioned the new policy. Presentations delivered by police or immigration agents can be educational and can also serve to deter crime among kids in the audience, said McDevitt, who was involved in many Border Patrol cases during his tenure from 2001 to 2010.

He called the ban “obnoxious.”

“That’s troubling, it’s marginalizing a very valuable function in our society and it sends the wrong message to the kids and the parents,” McDevitt said. “It sends a message that we don’t want legitimate law enforcement to be able to do their job on our campuses.”

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Visits to schools can also serve as recruitment tools for these agencies, McDevitt said. Officers can inspire students to pursue careers in law enforcement.

Superintendent Adam Swinyard clarified that parents of students who work for the Border Patrol could still engage in their child’s education while off the clock.

“The policy prohibits their involvement in our school if they’re operating on official capacity,” Swinyard said. “If they’re operating as a parent, then parents have the right to engage in their kids’ school experiences as a parent, but not operating in their official capacity.”

Recent Border Patrol visits to schools have sent waves of anxiety through affected Latino communities, Mesa said, laden with PTSD from past interactions with Border Patrol and the association with separating families and racial profiling.

In 2018, concerned parents notified Latinos En Spokane of uniformed Border Patrol agents holding story times at Holmes Elementary and began their push to prevent similar occurrences.

In a second “tone-deaf” incident in December, another uniformed officer visited the Spanish Immersion Language School to deliver a presentation about immigrants and refugees, sending waves of fear among school families concerned their children may have shared potentially incriminating information about their family or friends’ immigration status, said Mesa, who is a parent at the immersion school. The visit was a protocol breach, district officials said, and not in line with existing policy from the time.

Both visits raised Mesa’s concerns, prompting meetings with district administrators and a 780-signature petition to ban immigration agents on school campuses.

Wednesday’s revision was the result of these conversations, Mesa said. Attendees nearly filled seats in the boardroom, some carrying neon signs proclaiming “Ban ICE” and “students should feel safe, not feel fear, anxiety and trauma in the classroom.”

Several attendees spoke in support of the revisions. ICE stands for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Coming from a Mexican background,” Ami Deras said, “when I saw officers when I was young, I thought they were going to arrest my parents, arrest my cousins because of the color of my skin or maybe my accent.”

Mesa said she’s also urging the district to enhance its training and professional development to consider the lived experience of immigrants in a more culturally competent way, as well as continuing conversation with advocacy groups like Latinos En Spokane, who could contribute to these trainings, she said.

In her advocacy work, Mesa said she sees firsthand the need for explicit, divisive policy and clear communication from leadership to prevent a repeat of policy lapses like at the Spanish Immersion Language School in December.

“Just today, we got a report of two people who were picked up by ICE,” Mesa said. “They were on their way to work. They were in Spokane Valley. They get picked up. That’s community members that disappear and we need to track them down and try to get them back with families. This is happening every day in Spokane. We don’t need it to happen in our schools.”

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