During a powerful and emotional Broward County School Board meeting on Tuesday, March 7th, a packed room of parents, community residents and faith leaders sporting orange ribbons spoke in defense of immigrant children and families. During the widely-attended meeting, which took place at County Board headquarters at the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Building (600 S.E. 3rd Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301), the School Board unanimously approved a measure designating the Broward School District an inclusive, safe and welcoming district that protects all children and mandates that schools to work with parents to create a “Safe Plan” that would prepare them in case they or loved ones are targeted for deportation.
“This is a huge victory for all students,” said Broward parent Mica Jordan. “When you go to school, the last thing that should be on your mind is whether or not your family will be intact when you get off [the bus].”
The resolution passed at a time of great turmoil in the immigrant community, when immigrant activists are being targeted and immigrant families are being torn apart, living in fear of raids and deportation. In nearby Palm Beach, the School Superintendent declared his county’s schools “safe harbors from raids.” Meanwhile in Miami-Dade, a judge just shot down a detention policy the county adopted to follow Trump’s deportation order in the face of widespread community opposition to the President’s threats to withdraw funding to localities that are supported of undocumented communities.
“It’s a big win for the immigrant community,” said Roberto Benavides of Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER). “It means that kids are going to be protected and that they are going to be able to just be kids — focus on their education, their extracurricular actives and be a part of their communities.”
“How we treat our children is a reflection of us. It defines the future that we have,” said Broward County Superintendent Robert W. Runcie just before the final vote. “The stand that we are taking here today not only sends a message to our students and our community that our schools are a safe haven for them, but it also sends a message about how they ought to view the world and how they needs to respect, celebrate and tolerate other culture. [If] we try to model love and compassion, it will move into the next generation.”
Francesca Menes, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Florida Immigrant Coalition, agreed with Runcie, saying that she hopes that the resolution, the first supportive school board statement of its kind in the state of Florida, is one that reverberates in Tallahassee.
“On this first day of the Florida legislative session, our leadership in Broward sent a strong message to other elected officials that our immigrant children and families are an important part of our communities, regardless of their immigration status,” said Menes. “As anti-immigration bills circulate in Tallahassee, officials should take a moment to consider that at the local level, leaders recognize the contributions of immigrants and that every child has a right to live and learn without the constant fear of losing a parent due to being deported or detained.”
Parents, teachers and clergy went into the afternoon sharing personal experiences of how President Donald Trump’s Executive Orders targeting all immigrants, regardless of status, was having on students in school and at home. What community members needed from school officials was a firm commitment to protect them against aggressive immigration enforcement that is sweeping many communities in the nation.
“Unless everyone is told that the educational setting is a protected space, parents fearful of being deported on the way to school may keep students at home and we all know how crucial regular attendance is to learning,” said retired elementary school Assistant Principal Cindy Johnson, a 15-year veteran of the school district. “I personally know how seriously school staff takes your directives. I am sure that when you reiterate to them that the district is welcoming and is a protected space for all students regardless of immigration status, religion or country of origin, they will take this to heart and work tirelessly to ensure that their students feel their reassurance. They need to know that those in charge of the District strongly support this inclusive position.”
Board members tried to find a balance, wanting to show leadership on the issue while not overstepping their authority so as to make any actions reversible by other government agencies. Courts have long held that public schools are legally obligated to provide all students from K-12 access to an education regardless of their immigration status. Enforcement officials had previously been instructed in memos not to target schools, hospitals, churches, funerals and public demonstrations, though recent arrests and deportations of activists like DACA-recipient Daniela Vargas, who was targeted after leaving a news conference, have left the immigrant activist community terrified.
Ultimately, Board Members were swayed by the diverse voices who encouraged officials to not just protect students at school, but any place where education-related activities were being held. Broward School members were attentive and School Board Member Donna P. Korn offered an amendment expanding the original resolution to include bus stops, extracurricular activities like team sports and even special occasions like proms and graduations.
School Board Member Robin Bartleman, who proposed the amendment, rejoiced with fellow Broward residents after it passed. “I want to say thank you to this community for coming out and making it easy to do the right thing. I love Broward County.”
Community Access Center CEO Magaly Prezeau echoed many community service providers in telling the board how proud and thankful she was in their proactive approach to the issue. “Our families, especially Haitian families, are very scared and are really worried about sending their kids to school. They have even begun sending them to school with copies of their immigration papers in case they’re stopped in the street,” said Prezeau. “But today, you told them that they were important. That they are a protected part of our community. Thank you for passing this resolution and for being champions for our voiceless immigrant children.”