Onteora discusses creating ‘safe zone’ for immigrant students

If the Onteora District Middle/High School tipping point on recent contentious subjects began with the Indian Mascot, it was then followed by discussions (still ongoing) over banning the Confederate Flag on school property. At its October 10 meeting at Phoenicia Elementary School, board of education trustees were asked to tackle the subject of immigrant students via a proposal to create a district Safe Zone.

Amy Gustafson a teacher at Phoenicia Elementary School and Jo Salas, a volunteer with the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN) presented information on the subject. The Federal law protects immigrant students, allowing them to attend public schools no matter what their legal status may be. Gustafson said roughly 20 percent of students at Phoenicia School alone are from other countries. The primary function of a Safe Zone would be to make sure everyone, including the non-immigrant community, is aware that immigrant students are safe to attend pubic school. Salas said there is a great deal of “misinformation” going around on the issue. “The law has already established the right of all students regardless of their immigration status,” Gustafson said, “but we see a need for our schools to make this information explicit and readily available to all, for immigrant and non-immigrant families.”

The Ulster chapter of UIDN was formed by local communities of faith, local organizations and concerned residents due to recent events unfolding over anti-immigrant prejudice. The National Education Association is the countrywide branch of the grassroots movement to create Safe Zones in school, primarily through teachers. To date 95 school districts across the U.S. have adopted Safe Zones.


Bullying, stress, and intimidation are just a few problems immigrant children face. “Some of the clergy were getting reports that some of the kids were being targeted on account of their immigration status perceived or otherwise,” Salas said.

UIDN is new, filling a need to help people who are victims of the current anti-immigrant backlash. Salas has been presenting this information to school districts throughout Ulster County. “We are about to launch a 24 hour bilingual help line which will connect people to resources that they need as best we can,” she said. “We are developing rapid response teams that are standing by, just to be present, witness and document-its for people who might be under immediate threat of deportation.” The Board will mull over adopting a Safe Zone resolution at future meetings. School Board President Kevin Salem said he would like to run it by the district lawyers.

The board tackled another potentially divisive topic in the form of approving a resolution that will change all the pronouns in the policy manual to be gender neutral. Salem said, “There are places in our policy where we take out his or her and replace it with ‘their.’” The resolution grandfathers in the change as policy renewals get reviewed. Trustee Bennet Ratcliff asked, “So you would also be replacing it with them, their and they?” Salem said, “yes, we would use them, their, and they, as opposed to his/her or he/she.” Ratcliff said, “They, is also singular, it’s recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary and the AP Style Manual.” Osmond introduced a resolution that would enforce policies as gender neutral noting that girls are targeted in the handbook and reprimanded more than boys regarding clothing. Salem agreed however said the matter needed to be addressed separately.

Press box needs replacing

Trustee Rob Kurnit said the recent buildings report showed that the press box and bleachers at the football/track field needed to be replaced. The press box alone was given priority that it was no longer a safe structure. Ratcliff wondered if a press box was even necessary. Superintendent Victoria McLaren said, “Although it’s casually called the press box, it’s more the announcers room. That is where the announcers sit so they can see.” She said the stands and bleachers are built as one unit now and it’s a priority that the current structures be replaced.