All students should have the right to #LearnWithoutFear

For years, punitive student discipline policies and the increased presence of police officers in schools have created a schoolhouse-to-jailhouse path that criminalizes minor classroom behaviors. Now, a group of Boston Teachers Union members is working in collaboration with community groups to establish a school district policy to disrupt what they call a school-to-deportation pipeline.


young man in high school hallway with blurry students in background
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“We’ve talked about the school-to-prison pipeline and how it affects Black and Brown students, and now, we have to talk about how that intersects with the school-to-deportation pipeline,” says Lena Papagiannis, a high school history teacher for Boston Public Schools. “It’s helpful to talk about how schools can be complicit.”

Boston Public Schools officials came under scrutiny for making student incident reports accessible to police and immigration authorities after a high school student was deported in 2017 to El Salvador following a lunchroom fight. Information from a school incident report was used as evidence in the student’s deportation hearing.

“It often plays out in a minor incident that happens at or near a school, and then a Boston School Police officer prepares a report that gets shared with local law enforcement without much oversight,” she explains. “And then the information from the police department can get shared with federal law enforcement agencies, like the FBI and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”

Papagiannis and fellow high school physics teacher Nora Paul-Schultz are part of a BTU immigrants’ rights organizing committee, called Unafraid Educators, that has worked with community advocacy groups led by the Student Immigration Movement—an undocumented immigrant youth-led grassroots organization in Massachusetts—for years. Together, with other community groups, as well as policy and legal experts, they developed the Learn Without Fear, a policy that seeks to regulate the sharing of student information with local and federal law enforcement.

“When the news about the information sharing first broke, the district and superintendent at the time denied sharing information with ICE,” Paul-Schultz says. She says the district denied collaborating with ICE, because Boston claims to be a sanctuary city. However, a lawsuit was filed to obtain information related to the sharing of documents between the school district, the Boston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.

Documents released earlier this year as a result of the lawsuit show that, between 2014 and 2018, student incident reports generated in schools had been shared more than 100 times between city agencies and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. BRIC is housed within the Boston Police Department and is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“Boston makes the claim that we’re a sanctuary city and that student information is being protected,” Paul-Schultz says. “But unless there are strong policies that actually prevent information-sharing, this problem will continue, and we won’t be living up to being a ‘sanctuary city.’

“We started this work back in 2017 when we met with the superintendent to push him on the issue of making student information accessible to law enforcement,” Paul-Schultz continues. “We started looking around the country to see if school districts in communities with large immigrant populations had good policies. We couldn’t find policies restricting information-sharing between school-based police and law enforcement through incident reports, so we started writing our own.”

AFT launched the Standing United campaign at the end of 2018 to provide supports to help locals protect the rights of immigrant students and their families. In response to increased enforcement actions from ICE under the Trump administration, AFT President Randi Weingarten sent a memo to affiliate leaders providing guidance on how educators can help protect students from deportation. AFT also has provided a sample resolution affiliates can use to urge school districts to commit to becoming safe havens for immigrant students.

The Learn Without Fear policy, developed by BTU’s Unafraid Educators, the Student Immigration Movement and other community groups, provides clear guidance on the kinds of behaviors and issues that should result in an incident report. The policy would protect students from being written up for minor school-related incidents and prevent student information—like immigration status, citizenship, religion, ethnicity and suspected gang affiliation—from being included in incident reports.

“These incident reports start to reinforce a profile on students, so that if you’re a young Black kid or a young Central American kid, you’re more likely to be listed in a database of suspected gang members,” Papagiannis says. “A lot of times, kids are put in that database without any real evidence that they actually are part of a gang.”

She says that label and negative record can stay with an adolescent well into adulthood and put individuals at greater risk for deportation and incarceration.

“These are issues facing the students in our care, as well as people who are older, because their information stays in that gang database,” she says. “There’s something pernicious about the way these documents are enshrined in perpetuity.

“White and affluent kids have the privilege of being children and making youthful mistakes,” Papagiannis says. “We’re not allowing Black and Brown kids to make teenage mistakes without being criminalized.”

The Learn Without Fear policy prohibits the sharing of student information with BRIC under any circumstances. It also mandates transparency and communication with students and parents. If a student is named in a student report or other record, that student and the parents must receive written notice—in English and the language spoken by the family. The policy requires greater oversight at the school, district and community levels, and calls for additional training for school police officers and administrators on the policy.

“We’ve been working to get the district to adopt parts of our policy by lobbying at School Committee meetings and working with city council members to include our policy in a surveillance oversight and information sharing ordinance that was formally introduced in early May,” Paul-Schultz says. Along with Student Immigration Movement, the group also held two teach-ins attended by some 300 people to educate community members on the campaign. More than 2,000 people signed a petition in support of the Learn Without Fear policy.

Papagiannis adds, “We had to learn a lot about how policies get made in our schools.” She is hopeful that at least parts of the policy will be adopted as a result of the work BTU Unafraid Educators and the Student Immigration Movement is doing with its community partners. To date, three city council members have stepped up as sponsors of the policy and other members have expressed support. Depending on ongoing negotiations with the mayor, the city council could hold hearings on the policy within the next six months, Paul-Schultz says.

“On a personal level, it was a trip to hear members of the city council speak about our proposal,” Papagiannis says. “This is work we drafted sitting around a dining table with boxes of takeout food and loads of sticky notes and piles of research on policies.”

Both Papagiannis and Paul-Schultz say that the heart of the Learn Without Fear policy is about the narrative that the union embodies; that the working conditions of educators are the learning conditions of students.

“As an educator, I don’t want to live with having my students criminalized for youthful behaviors,” Paul-Schultz says. “I do this work because I want students to feel safe to learn, and I don’t want to feel like I have no control over what happens to my students.”

Papagiannis adds, “We talk about teaching all students, but in order for students to learn, they have to feel safe. They can’t feel safe if they’re being surveilled and tracked. All students should be able to learn without fear.”

[Angela Callahan]