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Austin Teachers Union Pushes Back on AISD Immigration Memo

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Education Austin President Ken Zarifis addresses concerns about a memo from Austin ISD that told staff not to distribute material related to immigration resources, at a news conference at Lanier High School on Wednesday.

Teachers and principals should not feel afraid to provide information to immigrant families about what to do if ICE shows up at their homes, the local teacher's union said at a news conference today.  

Education Austin was responding to a memo Austin ISD lawyers sent to campuses Monday, advising them not to share resources and fliers that haven't been vetted by the superintendent's office. 

"It is a moral imperative that we share this information, that we educate our community and that the district supports us and helps us in collaboration to develop materials to do just that," said Ken Zarifis, Education Austin president.

Austin School Board Trustees Jayme Mathias, Paul Saldana and Ann Teich; Councilman Greg Casar; Mexican Consul General Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez; and representatives from other advocacy groups joined Education Austin at the news conference outside Lanier High School in North Austin. 

"In an overzealous attempt to protect the administration from involvement in a matter of public debate, the school district is failing to protect the children and protect the parents of the children who are its charge, just by providing objective, accurate information about what their rights are in order to tamp down their fears and in order to empower them to protect their legal rights," Bill Beardall with the Equal Justice Center said. "We urge the district to adopt a more reasonable policy."

After the press conference, Austin ISD released a joint statement from Superintendent Paul Cruz and School Board President Kendall Pace that said the district has "heard concerns from our families and staff." 

"We will continue to provide and update information for our campus staff to assist them in better serving our students," the statement continued. 

This time serves as an opportunity to assert the district's position that the safety and security of our students is our top priority.  Each and every day, more than 83,000 students come to our campuses to learn the skills that will make them successful for college, career and life.  This day, and every day our campuses are learning environments that are caring, engaging, supportive, safe and welcoming.  At AISD, we find strength in our diversity and know that the student experience is enhanced because of the many cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds that make us proud.  We have heard the concerns from our families and staff. We will continue to provide and update information for our campus staff to assist them in better serving our students.  As one of the largest employers in Central Texas, we value the diversity of our educators, support staff and administrators, and we realize that we could not reinvent the urban school experience without their efforts.

Cruz, who was meeting with district principals, did not attend the press conference. Pace told KUT she had a previous conflict.

"We had no control over the timing of [Education Austin's] press conference," Pace said via text. "I agree that a simple joint one with AISD and EA focused on our students’ safety would have been best."

At an Austin School Board Operations Committee meeting later in the afternoon, it was clear some trustees were frustrated the district was not delivering a clear action plan to the larger community.

“I know it’s going out to the campuses and that’s most important, but when you have the interpretation getting whipped up by others, then it just creates chaos,” Pace told Cruz. “And that’s what we don’t want. We want to de-escalate; we want to inform.”

She said she would look to the administration for an action plan. 

Since President Trump issued an executive order allowing for the immediate deportation of undocumented immigrants, Austin ISD lawyers have issued at least four memos to campuses about how to respond. Today, the district issued a memo clarifying what information staff can and cannot distribute to students regarding ICE arrests. While staff can post information and resources on a public bulletin board at school and encourage students and parents to become more informed on various issues, they cannot distribute information to all students in every classroom or engage in political activities during work time.

Some trustees said the confusion and lack of direct information has made many immigrant families feel like the district doesn’t support them. Trustees Mathias, Saldana and Teich want the board to pass a resolution in support of immigrant students.

Teich drafted a resolution that declares Austin ISD schools “safe zones,” meaning that they are “a place for all students to learn, to thrive, and to seek assistance, information and support related to any immigration law enforcement.”

But other board members believe the board should not govern through resolution. Instead, they want to pass a broad proclamation in support of all AISD students.

The board will discuss and possibly vote on that statement at its Monday meeting. Members also directed Superintendent Cruz to update them with an action plan on what the district is doing to support immigrant students and families.

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