North Carolina school leaders, advocates work to address immigrants’ fears following caustic campaign season

North Carolina school leaders, advocates work to address immigrants’ fears following caustic campaign season

- in Education

immigrant_children-318The day after President-elect Trump’s triumph was a day to remember, says Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano, one of North Carolina’s largest Latino advocacy and support organizations.

Immigrant children, undocumented and documented, were afraid to return to school. They feared deportation or bullying by their peers, says Rocha-Goldberg, after a presidential election noted for its particularly caustic tone toward immigrants.

Today, she says, North Carolina public schools must respond appropriately.

“They should be assuring everybody that they will be safe, assuring that diversity is still on the agenda. And finally, their education, no matter who is in the institution, they need to provide the services they need to protect the children.”

Advocates across North Carolina agree it’s a time of great uncertainty for the immigrant community, including the thousands of Latino children attending public schools across the state. During the campaign, Trump pledged to build a wall on the Mexican border and enlist a “deportation force” to remove undocumented immigrants.

Both threats were notably absent from Trump’s most recent policy pronouncements, but advocates remain concerned about the possibility that the new president will scrap a 2012 executive order from President Obama that’s allowed roughly 800,000 undocumented youth brought into the country as children to remain in the country temporarily while federal lawmakers continue to wrangle over long-stalled immigration reforms.

The effect, by and large, has been widespread confusion and fear, leaders such as Rocha-Goldberg say.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” she adds. “We just don’t know.”

That uncertainty, advocates note, has been felt in North Carolina schools as well, with reports surfacing of bullied immigrants and racially-motivated taunting following the election.

This month, stories emerged of similar harassment for immigrant teens at a Christian youth conference in Fayetteville. Youth at the annual conference typically clip clothes pins with Bible verses on each other. But, amidst reports of vocal Trump-backing teens in the audience, one Latino youth was given a pin bearing the words “I love Trump” on one side and “build a wall” on the other.

Meanwhile, The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a massive surge in hate crimes nationally since Election Day, with anti-immigrant rhetoric being the most commonly cited.

Maria Pitre-Martin, chief academic and digital learning officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, says public schools—utilizing a network of English as a second language, or ESL, teachers and guidance counselors—is prepared to offer whatever support is necessary.

“We are in the business of educating children because we love children and we support children,” said Pitre-Martin. “Any message that we could ever give is about support and working each and every day to support all children.”

Pitre-Martin said the state office has not received any reports of a rise in anti-immigrant bullying or taunting in North Carolina schools, although she acknowledged such matters would likely be left to local district leaders to handle anyway.

That said, Pitre-Martin said many school districts are sending the message that “bullying of any kind should not be allowed or tolerated.”

“At the end of the day, this is about a student feeling safe and being comfortable in their learning environment,” she said.

Two days after the election, Durham Public Schools Superintendent Bert L’Homme issued a message in English and Spanish to parents, reaffirming the school system’s support for all. It’s particularly noteworthy in Durham, a community where the Latino population has grown from about 3,000 to 37,000 since 1992, according to El Centro Hispano.

“Our school counselors are ready and able to support any student who has concerns following our recent elections,” L’Homme said. “Also, our district policies are firmly against harassment and intimidation of any kind; any student experiencing them for any reason should let a teacher or principal know immediately. You are all part of our community, and we are here for you.”

And while other districts have not been so outspoken as Durham, immigrant advocacy groups, whether they’re focusing on schools or not, say they are planning support sessions in the days and weeks ahead.

El Centro Hispano was slated to convene a forum at Carrboro Elementary School in Orange County at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night to allow parents and children to express their concerns. Immigration attorneys will be on hand to provide as much clarification on the laws as they can, Rocha-Goldberg said.

Ivanna Mann Thrower Anderson, an ESL consultant for DPI, adds that districts employ bilingual family outreach workers that communicate directly with parents and children to provide support. She said teachers have also been trained to identify children in need of services as well.

Nationally, the reaction has also been swift from education policy leaders concerned about the impacts on schools. The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, has planned a conference call town hall Tuesday night (RSVP to call in here) to offer guidelines on how schools and support services should function in schools.

And the National Association of School Psychologists issued guidelines for school leaders to employ following the divisive presidential election. In its guidelines, the group notes school officials should reinforce appreciation for diversity and act quickly to quell bullying and harassment.

Rocha-Goldberg said her organization is also communicating with Latino youth to counsel them on how to respond to racially-motivated bullying.

“We don’t want to create the same thing in our kids,” she said. “Responding to hate also with hate or with bad acts, it’s not the right thing to do.”

For Pitre-Martin, all of the training and prep will be key to reach her office’s top goal.

“First and foremost, that’s to ensure that all students are welcomed in our schools. That’s critically important and, really, you want that for all children.”