Berkeley school board considers sanctuaries for immigrant, undocumented students

Simon Greenhill/Staff

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Berkeley Unified School District may soon adopt a policy making district campuses sanctuaries for undocumented and immigrant students after the Board of Education reaffirmed the district’s commitment to student safety at its meeting Wednesday.

The board members’ discussion came shortly after four Berkeley students and their families filed a federal class-action lawsuit against them earlier Wednesday, alleging that the district had racially profiled and attempted to intimidate Black, Latino and immigrant students by pulling them out of class to interview them.

The interviews were part of the district’s investigation into Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher Yvette Felarca, according to district spokesperson Charles Burress. Felarca was placed on paid administrative leave after physically attacking a self-proclaimed white nationalist at a Sacramento, California, rally June 26.

This is the second lawsuit filed against the district for alleged wrongdoing related to Felarca’s investigation. A suit filed in late October alleged the district had infringed on her First Amendment rights by placing her on involuntary paid leave for political activism.

“Only my (English Language Development), international and immigrant students were interrogated. They did not interrogate any of my mainstream students as far as we know,” said Felarca, who returned to her classroom Nov. 2. “There is clearly a political motivation behind it.”

After holding a press conference before the board’s meeting, Felarca, the suit’s plaintiffs and a small group of supporters gave public comment as the meeting began. Many speakers’ comments were testy, accusing the district of “behaving like cops” and alleging that Felarca’s investigation “smells of fascism.”

Felarca and most of her supporters left the meeting shortly after making their comments. As the meeting continued, several board members said they intend to adopt districtwide policies making campuses sanctuaries as soon as January, according to board member Ty Alper. The policy would prohibit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officials from detaining or deporting students on school grounds.

President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to cut federal funding for “sanctuary cities” that refuse to comply with ICE officials. He has announced plans to deport as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants who have criminal records.

“I’ll do everything that I can to make sure that schools are sanctuaries for our students, and to prevent the potential onslaught of deportation,” said board member Judy Appel during the meeting. “I will do everything in my power … to protect our students and to stand in solidarity with our families.”

Other California districts, including the Los Angeles and San Francisco unified school districts, have adopted similar policies, vowing to protect their undocumented students even if it means defying federal authorities.

Though they could not discuss Felarca’s investigation or the lawsuits surrounding it, some board members expressed exasperation at commenters’ criticism.

“Every board member here has worked around issues of immigration, human rights, social justice, mass incarceration of young people,” said board president Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. “We’ve been very supportive of our communities, and we will continue to be. I don’t see that we will lose sight of that.”

Contact Simon Greenhill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @simondgreenhill.

Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article may have implied Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Charles Burress had discussed the reasons for which Yvette Felarca was placed on paid administrative leave. In fact, Burress said only that the allegedly discriminatory interviews were conducted as part the district’s investigation of Felarca, without giving details on why the investigation itself was conducted.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Yvette Felarca was placed on paid administrative leave for physically attacking a self-proclaimed white nationalist at a rally. In fact, Felarca was placed on leave after she attacked the white nationalist at the rally. Berkeley Unified School District has not given an official reason for putting Felarca on leave.