The Kingston City School District last month sent students home with a letter affirming its commitment to protecting the rights of the community’s immigrant and undocumented students, philosophically aligning the district with the state’s policies.
“Protecting the rights of Kingston’s immigrant and undocumented students is very important to me and our district’s beliefs and values,” read the letter signed by Superintendent Paul Padalino. “We received guidance on this issue from the NYS Attorney General’s Office and from the NYS Commissioner of Education. The messages conveyed reaffirms that New York ‘schools will remain safe havens where all students can learn.’”
The letter, addressed to the community, cites state education law that, “Undocumented children, like U.S. citizen children, have the right to attend school full-time as long as they meet the age and residency requirement established by state law.”
The letter further cites laws like the New York Family Court Act (NYFCA), the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which covers the rights of undocumented students.
“In accordance with guidance provided by the State, Kingston will not allow immigration officials to interview students at school,” reads Padalino’s letter. “It has long been SED’s position that law enforcement officers may not remove a student from school property or interrogate a student without the consent of the student’s parent or person in parental relation, except in very limited situations (e.g., when law enforcement officers have a valid warrant or when a crime has been committed on school property). In addition, requests to access student records and personally identifiable information are protected under FERPA and the District will deny such requests.”
The district’s message follows a joint statement in February 2017 by then-state attorney general Eric Schneiderman and state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
“Recent immigration-related actions by federal officials have created fear and confusion across the country,” read the Schneiderman/Elia statement. “New York State residents, whom both of our agencies and the New York State Board of Regents have pledged to serve, have communicated directly with our agencies about the anxiety and questions these actions raised. The New York State Office of the Attorney General and the New York State Education Department write today to reaffirm to students, schools, families, and communities across the State of New York that our schools will remain safe havens where all students can learn.”
Padalino said the KCSD began drafting its own statement of support last spring, but didn’t complete it until just prior to summer break. They waited to release it at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year to ensure it reached the community at a time when school is foremost on everyone’s minds.
“It’s really important that our kids, no matter where they come from, whether they’re undocumented or not, whatever, feel safe when they come to our buildings,” Padalino said this week in an interview with the Kingston Times. “This is our job. As it says in the letter, they have the right to this whether the current political climate says they do or no, the law says they do. We are going to protect them, make sure we can do everything we can to keep them safe and get them educated. These are their rights and this is how we feel.”
The district’s letter is also available on the official KCSD website (https://www.kingstoncityschools.org/Page/4463), and includes links to the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network, State Education Department guidance on how to combat immigration-related harassment and bullying, and a separate link to DASA resources in 20 different languages. A link to the Schneiderman/Elia statement is also available, which Padalino says is crucial in bringing everyone together.
“It’s very good to have the commissioner to come out with a statement, to have the state come out with a statement, and then to have the case law backing it up,” he said this week. “We’re not just saying it. This is established. This is law, and everybody in a position of responsibility and authority agrees. It’s nice for us all to be on the same page. It’s heartening to know that when it comes to the safety of our kids, regardless of what our disagreements might be when it comes to other things related to education, the commissioner, the state, and school districts are all on the same page.”
‘Totally not political’
Padalino rejected the notion that the district is taking sides in a larger national political debate. He said he looks at it as an issue of doing what’s right.
“This is totally not political as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “Every day, 6,586 kids get dropped off or take a bus to our school buildings. When those parents hand those kids over to us, they’re entrusting me with the safety, welfare, health and education of those kids. I’m responsible as soon as they cross the property line onto our schools. If something were to happen where laws were broken and student rights are violated in this manner, I’m responsible. We take that very seriously. I take that very seriously. When you’re working with kids you do everything you can to protect them no matter where they’re from, what gender they identify as, what race they are, what religion they are. We choose to work with kids for a reason. And it’s to make sure that they grow up to be healthy, smart, well-adjusted, safe adults.”
Padalino said that while he’s sure there’s chatter on both sides of the debate, he’s only ever heard from people who are pleased with the stance the district has taken. He added that there’s plenty of support across the community as well.
“We get a lot of thanks,” he said. “Our Latino population is outpacing our African-American population, which is something we wouldn’t have thought would happen in the past. Here in Kingston there are a lot of groups helping those families get adjusted to the community, helping those families find resources for work or school or other services of some kind. There’s a lot of support for the schools to be supportive of kids.”
The superintendent added that the debate has also been instructive for many of Kingston’s students.
“One of the things we do as an education institution, especially at the high school level, is bring things to the surface that are thought-provoking to help our kids think critically about current events, whether they be immigration or protests, any of those kinds of things,” Padalino said. “It’s our job to, for high school kids especially, to let them dive in and express those opinions.”