We don't need to travel to Texas, Arizona or Mexico to see the suffering and fear resulting from our country’s immigration policy or the trauma it’s inflicting on our children. It’s here in Massachusetts, too.
I teach at a school in an underserved community in Boston, where approximately 80 percent of our school’s students are Latino. I feel their trauma in my classroom every day. My students are worried about their futures. Some are terrified of being deported. Or scared of “random stops” by immigration enforcement. Many have completely given up or shut down. Their families are being targeted, and the stress they feel is acute.
One student approached me teary eyed and asked, “What’s going to happen to my family?” Other students have disappeared for days on end, only to come back to school acting withdrawn and uneasy.
One student approached me teary eyed and asked, “What’s going to happen to my family?”
Two more of my students were detained at the New Hampshire border last summer at a border patrol checkpoint on an interstate highway. (And they weren’t the only ones — thousands of individuals were searched and seized on Interstate 93 in multiple instances in 2017 and 2018.) Sixteen of those individuals were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire in court to challenge the constitutionality of these border patrol checkpoints. They won, proving that border patrol agents abused their federal authority to circumvent the constitutional rights of those traveling in New Hampshire. Yet, it seems there are more new checkpoints every day.
As an educator, it’s clear that we need to focus on a two-fold strategy to keep our communities strong: we need to protect immigrant communities and advocate for better mental health supports in our schools.
Some school districts already are stepping up to address these issues locally. The Chelsea School Committee, of which I am the vice chairwoman, unanimously passed a Safe Haven Resolution that asks all the schools in our district to protect the identity of our students and to not communicate with ICE officers. The resolution is in keeping with the Chelsea Public Schools’ mission to welcome and educate all students, while treating every child and family with respect and dignity.
My employer, the Excel Academy Charter Schools, also adopted a safe haven policy for all the schools in their network. These resolutions and official policies assure students of their protection while in the care of their schools. It also signals to parents that we understand the gravity of the issue and will never betray their trust. While it is difficult to make substantive change at our borders, it is well within our power to make offer students a greater sense of safety and security in our schools. More school districts should follow suit.
I know all too well how trauma negatively impacts our children, and I’m afraid that we are falling short in supporting students and families. Educators for Excellence-Boston (E4E-Boston), a teacher advocacy group I belong to, surveyed educators about the realities of mental health support in our classrooms. More than 90 percent of Boston teachers surveyed reported that student trauma is a challenge at their schools, yet 70 percent said they do not have sufficient training to tackle this issue, and just more than half said they do not have adequate staffing to address it.
The work of school psychologists and counselors is essential -- and there are not nearly enough of them.
School counselors and psychologists connect with students and their families to treat their overall mental state, to improve educational performance. They offer therapy, counseling and academic support. Their work is essential — and there are not nearly enough of them. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per counselor; Massachusetts has nearly twice that ratio, at 423 students per counselor. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 700 students, and it is currently at one per 981 in the state. Our current level of mental health support is unacceptable in the best of times, let alone the worst of times.
We may feel powerless when it comes to federal immigration policy, but we do have control over the creation of safe communities and productive school environments. Whenever possible, we must allocate adequate funding for appropriate mental health staffing levels in our schools. And we can and should pass resolutions at the local level that make our priorities and values clear.
At the state level, we must demand public policy that defends our communities against discrimination. One missed opportunity was legislation like the Safe Communities Act, passed by the Massachusetts State Senate, as an amendment in budget debate, but removed from the final compromise budget filed this week.
We must commit to supporting our students, no matter the stressors they face, and safeguard the human rights of everyone in this country.
Kelly Garcia is a teacher at Excel Academy Charter High School in East Boston. She serves as vice chairwoman of the Chelsea School Committee.