Following the county government’s lead, Fairfax County Public Schools will soon prohibit voluntary cooperation between staff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the school board voted unanimously on Tuesday (May 5) to create a “School Trust Policy.”
Fairfax County School Board members say the new policy will align with the Trust Policy that the county adopted in January, which prohibits employees from giving federal immigration authorities information about a person’s immigration or citizenship status unless required by law or court order.
With the vote, some board members will start working with FCPS staff to develop the policy for full adoption in the near future. According to the school board, the new policy will be designed to help build confidence with immigrant families.
“Even with our school system’s existing commitment to privacy protection, the need for a policy that rebuilds trust with immigrant families remains urgent,” Providence District School Board Representative Karl Frisch, who co-sponsored the measure, said. “Fairfax County took the necessary first step. Our school division will now join them by developing a policy that helps rebuild trust in our schools and keep families together — that is exactly what the School Trust Policy will do.”
Student information, including immigration status, is confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, typically known by its acronym, FERPA. But advocates say ICE can easily access names, addresses, and birth dates to locate undocumented students and their parents.
“Because ICE takes advantage of privacy law deficiencies through data-mining of multiple public and quasi-public databases, the policies limit disclosure to other outside entities whose records could be accessed for immigration enforcement,” the immigrant rights group ACLU People Power Fairfax said. “Sensitive contact information may still be shared, but only when required to accomplish the agency’s mission.”
A recent survey from CASA, the largest immigrant advocacy group in the mid-Atlantic region, showed that Fairfax County has struggled to gain the immigrant community’s trust because members fear any contact with the police can lead to their deportation, Frisch says.
This fear keeps some families from accessing FCPS resources, such as meals, mental health services, parent workshops, and academic opportunities, according to School Board Chair and Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson, who joined Frisch in proposing the Trust Policy.
“To regain their confidence, we must demonstrate in all that we do that we are in the business of education and nothing more,” she said.
But the magnitude of the problem in FCPS is not easy to measure, as the Virginia Department of Education does not track immigration status.
What the school division does know is that, during the 2019-20 school year, nearly 27% of all students last fall were English Learners, and Frisch says that in 2018, a former FCPS student who was undocumented told the board that he did not report incidents of bullying and assaults because he feared being reported to ICE.
The forthcoming School Trust Policy will be essential to immigrant students’ educational success and general well-being, ACLU People Power Fairfax Lead Advocate Diane Burkley Alejandro says.
“Although federal privacy law provides protection for student information, there are numerous exceptions that put immigrant families at risk,” she said. “We applaud the School Board for recognizing that more must be done.”