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A call for protections

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Thursday Mar 16, 2017

Photo courtesy of St. Stephen's Youth Programs
Photo courtesy of St. Stephen's Youth Programs  

For immigrant BPS students

Submitted by St. Stephen's Youth Programs

On Tuesday, March 7, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson called for a hearing on a resolution for the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to commit to sanctuary protections for immigrant students. Over 200 people were packed into the sanctuary of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in the South End to ask the city to protect all students. Students, educators, parents, school nurses, faith leaders and staff from immigrant rights organizations testified in support of this resolution. City Councilors O'Malley, Essabai-George, Pressley, and Campbell were there, in addition to a representative Council President Wu's office. State Rep. Byron Rushing was also in attendance.

Youth organizers have called on leaders from City Hall and the Bolling Building to commit to strong and clear protections for all students, regardless of immigration status. These organizers have asked BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang to communicate with all BPS families in all applicable languages with unequivocal and specific language that clarifies the ways in which BPS will keep all of its students and their family members safe. Students have recognized the need for this kind of decisive action from elected leaders since November, and they demanded material commitments of resources and policy to back up rhetoric and promises.

In the absence of clear action from the Mayor or the Superintendent, City Councilor Tito Jackson called for a hearing on a resolution to implement sanctuary protections across the school district. Students, teachers, school nurses, and community leaders shared testimony of their experience of trauma and terror that has existed since long before Election Day on November 8, 2017, but these feelings of fear and stress have greatly intensified since then.

BPS Elementary School teacher VerĂ³nica Navarro testified, "It has been the toughest part of my career in the last seven years." She continued, "I don't know what to tell my students. I don't know how to make them feel safe. Becoming a sanctuary school district would give me a concrete reply to assure my students of their safety. It is common knowledge in the education and health fields that students cannot access their cognitive brains if their basic needs aren't met. One of those basic needs is safety. To simplify: students can't learn when they are afraid."

A student testified, "students deserve to be safe...not just told that they are." Another student said, "BPS must declare the schools sanctuary- even if stuff comes up later, they must take the first step." This sentiment was common. If BPS wants its students to feel safe enough in school to learn, they must prove that they are taking every possible action to protect all the young people in their care.

St. Stephen's Priest Associate, the Rev. Liz Steinhauser, testified, "What is the definition of sanctuary? A sanctuary is a sacred place, a place where comfort and peace can happen. A sanctuary is a space of safety. And a sanctuary is a place that is a refuge, often for nature. It is a place where there is no hunting, there is no predator or prey, there is no us vs. them. We need our public schools to be sanctuaries and we call on the City Council to pass this resolution."

Councilor Jackson concluded the hearing with a call to continue to take action, "If we stand idly by, we are complicit. We are co-signing." He then read from "The New Colossus," the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty with the intent to welcome new immigrants written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish socialist feminist who came from a family of refugees. "Sanctuary is like the word love," he said. "Unless we say it, we don't really mean it."

Organizers asked for everyone in attendance to call Mayor Walsh's office at 311 every single day until Boston has the strongest sanctuary school protections in the country.

The next day at the City Council's regular Wednesday meeting, Councilor Jackson called for a vote on the proposed resolution and it passed unanimously. Organizers are now calling for a city ordinance to enforce it.


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