Opinion: Commentary: Fairfax County School Board Protects Immigrant Families

Today, the Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously to develop a School Trust Policy aligning the school division with Fairfax County’s Trust Policy. Adopted in January, the County policy prohibits voluntary cooperation by all Fairfax County agencies with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The policies are designed to help build trust and confidence with immigrant families.

The proposal, sponsored by School Board members Dr. Ricardy Anderson (Mason District) and Karl Frisch (Providence District), was approved this morning at the Board’s monthly Forum discussion. The Board’s governance committee will now work with school division staff to develop the policy for adoption by the full Board in the near future.

“For too many immigrant families, the trust has been broken. To regain their confidence, we must demonstrate in all that we do that we are in the business of education and nothing more,” said Dr. Anderson, the School Board’s chair and Mason District representative. “The fear of being reported or deported is keeping families from accessing the critical resources that Fairfax County Public Schools provides — from meals and mental health services to parent workshops and academic opportunities for their children.”

“Even with our school system’s existing commitment to privacy protection, the need for a policy that rebuilds trust with immigrant families remains urgent,” said Frisch, the School Board’s Providence District representative. “Fairfax County took the necessary first step. Our school division will now join them by developing a policy that helps rebuild trust in our schools and keep families together — that is exactly what the School Trust Policy will do.”

The COVID-19 crisis and a recent CASA survey show Fairfax County has struggled to gain the immigrant community’s trust. Many fear that any contact with the police can lead to their deportation. But the community is equally concerned that information collected by the government could be accessed for civil immigration purposes.

There are about 750,000 undocumented school-aged children and another 5 million children living with unauthorized immigrant parents in the United States according to the Migration Policy Institute. Although the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) does not track immigration status, Legal Aid Justice Center notes that 27 percent of all Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) students in the 2019–20 school year were current or former English Learners.

The impact on students largely tracks that felt by the community at large. A former FCPS undocumented student told the School Board in July 2018 that he failed to report bullying and severe assaults due to fear that he would be reported to ICE. Studies by Stanford University and others show that concerns about information sharing by schools pose a significant barrier to educational success.

While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does maintain the confidentiality of student information, including immigration status, ICE can easily access information to locate undocumented students and their parents. The agency has exploited weaknesses in U.S. privacy laws with data-mining technologies run mainly by contractors that collect data without the same restrictions imposed on government data collection.

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