Schools Are No Longer Safe in Arizona
PHOENIX, Ariz -- Schools may no longer be safe zones for undocumented students in Arizona. Educators and attorneys fear that police could enforce the state’s new immigration law in the public schools.
Nothing in Arizona’s SB 1070, the law that makes it a crime to be undocumented in the state, exempts minors from being questioned by police when there is probable cause, according to several legal experts.
“If they don’t commit a crime, they won’t be asking them. If a student commits a crime, it’s always been the case that they could inquire about their legal residence,” said Arizona Superintendent of Education Tom Horne.
The new legislation, which is expected to go into effect at the end of July, has raised questions about what it will mean for school resource officers – law enforcement agents who work in educational institutions. Concerned that these officers could enforce the new law inside schools, some Arizona school districts are considering filing a lawsuit against SB 1070.
Some legal experts believe the new Arizona law clashes with a Supreme Court decision that grants undocumented minors access to education.
But in Arizona, questions have long been raised about police departments’ interaction with undocumented students.
Even before SB 1070 was signed into law at the end of April, some agencies already had policies to contact immigration authorities and inquiry about a person’s immigration status regardless of his or her age.
On April 6, for example, a Scottsdale Police Department resource officer working at Coronado High School questioned a 14-year-old student who allegedly stole an iPod from a classmate. The student was arrested. His parents were called to come pick him up, but while he was at the police station the officer inquired about the student’s legal status with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Now, with the passage of SB 1070, educators are even more worried about the safety of undocumented students.
“There’s nothing that protects minors. There’s no age distinction in SB 1070. So what we have is a formula for disaster,” said attorney Richard Martinez, who represents two police officers as plaintiffs in two of the lawsuits against SB 1070.
Martinez said that the presence of police inside schools raises serious questions about what will happen to children who are victims of a crime.
The Phoenix Police Department would not comment on how SB 1070 would impact the work of school resource officers in Arizona.
Mark Spencer, director of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a union that represents more than 2,000 police officers in the state, believes that what happened in the Scottsdale high school would not happen in Phoenix.
“We are going to assume a person is in the country legally, unless there’s reasonable suspicion to indicate otherwise. A student committing theft doesn’t lead us to believing he’s here illegally,” said Spencer who spoke in favor of SB 1070
But Lyle Mann, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, the agency in charge of developing guidelines for the enforcement of the new law, said the law would not be enforced any differently for minors.
“If there’s an arrest, it doesn’t matter if it is on school grounds or not, then SB 1070 applies and they’ll have to verify their citizenship. It’s no different if it happens at the mall,” said Mann.
His agency is expected to provide guidelines on how to enforce the new law by June 30. The training is not mandatory but will be made available to all law enforcement agencies in the state via video.
“It seems very clear that if a student is arrested and there’s reasonable suspicion, they are obligated to do an investigation (into the student’s immigration status),” said Gabriel Chin, co-director of the program in criminal law and policy at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Chin said this possibility raises serious doubts over whether the schools would be able to provide a safe educational environment for students.
“It’s a very serious problem,” he said. “They won’t accomplish goals of reducing crime in the schools if the students know that they (the police) are a threat.”
Chin believes the law’s impact on minors is no accident. Rather, it seems to be in line with other proposals by the bill’s author, Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who plans to introduce legislation next year to deny birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented parents.
“I would say that it didn’t fall through the cracks, that this was at least consistent with the overall purpose. This bill is about deterrence, about persuading people to leave the state by creating a significant and large real threat of persecution and deportation,” he said.
But SB 1070’s effect on students could come into direct conflict with a Supreme Court decision known as Plyler v. Doe, which says that all students -- even those who are undocumented -- have access to K-12 education.
“If police ask (about someone’s immigration status), it’s as if the school is asking. It would be violating the decision in Plyler,” said Dan Pochoda, lead attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the organizations that has brought a lawsuit against SB 1070. “The difference is not so much that it’s minors versus adults, but because the schools are supposed to be a place where they would keep themselves open to all persons or students.”
The fact that the police would only inquire about a student’s immigration status in connection with lawful contact is no guarantee that minors won’t be questioned just for “something as minor as smoking in a hallway,” Pochoda stressed.
School districts have held meetings with law enforcement to try to figure out the role of school resource officers, who work in schools through a combination of funding from the districts and the police department. But it is not clear how much say the school districts will have; school resource officers operate under the direction of law enforcement agencies, not the schools.
Michael Martinez, superintendent of the Cartwright School District in west Phoenix, says his district is going to “do everything we can to make sure that the protection a public school has with regards to educating their children and not questioning their citizenship status remains. We are going to make sure we don’t violate that.”
One option is to eliminate the presence of school resource officers entirely, something that Martinez’s district is currently considering. But there is no guarantee that this will keep students from having contact with police.
“For instance, if there’s a gang fight, and some kids are brought into the office, the parents may insist on having the police called,” said Martinez. “That constitutes a lawful contact. So are they going to be compelled to carry it out? The answer is yes, they’ll have to carry on their duties.”
Even more worrisome to Martinez are situations in which a child is a victim of a crime such as sexual abuse, and the school district is obliged to notify the police.
His district has been approached to file a lawsuit against SB 1070 and is expected to announce its decision in July.