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NYS leaders: Public schools are ‘safe havens’ for all students

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, left, and Education Commissioner

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, left, and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia sent a joint letter Monday reminding public school districts statewide that schools are "safe havens" where all students, including undocumented immigrants, are able to continue their education. Photo Credit: Getty / AP

Public schools on Long Island and across the state will remain “safe havens” where all students, including those living in the country illegally, are able to continue their education, two top state officials reaffirmed Monday.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said a joint letter they sent to local school districts was prompted by questions raised by state residents who are anxious over recent federal immigration actions.

Those actions, which have included arrests and deportations of immigrants who entered illegally and previously allowed to remain in the country, have created “fear and confusion,” Schneiderman and Elia said.

Officials in the U.S. Education Department responsible for enforcing federal school laws and regulations did not respond Monday to Newsday’s request for comment.

School representatives at the state and regional levels generally welcomed the reassurances, though some analysts said they had hoped for clearer guidance.

In their letter, Schneiderman and Elia cited both federal laws and court decisions stretching back to the late 1950s in underscoring three main points:

  • Undocumented children, like legal residents, have the right to attend school full time as long as they meet age and residency requirements.
  • Law enforcement officers may not remove students, including immigrants, from schools or school grounds, or interrogate them without parental consent unless they have a warrant or are responding to a crime committed on school property.
  • Federal immigration officials have no apparent right to collect personal information on students, though schools should check with their own attorneys should they receive requests for such data.

“No family should have to worry that sending their child to school may result in deportation,” Schneiderman said in a prepared statement.

Both state education authorities in Albany and local school leaders on the Island said Monday that they had not heard of any federal inquiries directed at schools.

However, Latino organizations in this region have reported widespread anxieties among immigrant families since President Donald Trump on Jan. 25 signed an executive order expanding the categories of immigrants living here illegally who would be priorities for deportation.

More than 6,800 immigrant children, unaccompanied by parents or relatives, settled in Nassau and Suffolk counties from the 2014 through the 2016 federal fiscal years, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, with an additional 997 such children resettled on the Island during the last three months of 2016. The influx has ranked among the heaviest concentrations in the nation.

Gil Bernardino, board chairman of Evergreen Charter School, a public charter academy with 375 students in Hempstead, said many worried parents kept their children home temporarily as news spread of federal raids and immigrant arrests across the country in recent weeks. It was unclear at the time whether actual deportation rates were substantially higher than they had been under former President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Many children are concerned that they will return home from school and not find their mother or their father,” Bernardino said. “It’s insane!”

Bernardino also serves as executive director of Circulo de la Hispanidad, a social services agency with offices in Long Beach and Hempstead.

Some rules remained murky regarding release of students’ personal information, state school representatives said.

Schneiderman and Elia noted in their letter that federal privacy law generally bars schools from divulging such data without parental consent unless the request comes from a designated official, such as the U.S. attorney general. The letter adds that the law “does not appear” to include federal immigration agents as designated authorities, and suggests that schools consult with attorneys if contacted by such agents.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said his organization appreciated the effort that went into Monday’s letter, but wished the attorney general and education chief could have been more “straightforward” on the issue of students’ personal records.

With Víctor Manuel Ramos

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