Tucson Unified School District took a stand against President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy Tuesday, when the TUSD Governing Board unanimously instructed its attorneys to investigate whether it can take over the education of detained migrant children.
An estimated 300 detained immigrant minors are being held at a facility run by Southwest Key that was formerly used as a hotel and student housing at 1601 N. Oracle Road, within TUSD’s boundaries.
Little is known about what kind of education those children — who average 49 days in custody, though some are there much longer — receive under Southwest Key. TUSD Governing Board member Adelita Grijalva said the district had a “moral and ethical obligation” to offer education to those children.
“We don’t know what educational curriculum these children are receiving. We don’t know if it meets state standards. We don’t know if it’s being taught by certified teachers. We have no idea. TUSD is prepared to offer these services to our children,” she said.
And Grijalva said she hoped that by instructing their attorneys to dig into whether they can force the federal government to hand over the children to TUSD for education, the district will set a precedent and inspire other districts to follow suit.
“We have one Southwest Key facility in Tucson. There are 12 in Phoenix. So my hope would be this statement we make here can be sent to every other district where another facility is to say, ‘Here you go, we did it. Now you do it,’” she said. “All of us together should be able to get some answers.”
Governing Board member Kristel Foster said those detained migrant children deserve the same education as any other resident of Arizona. She noted that TUSD serves a large number of students in similar situations, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that all students have a right to an education, regardless of immigration status.
“There are 300 children there who reside in our boundary. As a district we service students in group homes, we service children in foster homes, we service homeless children. … We service all persons. Immigration status is not a factor — we educate children,” she said.
Foster acknowledged it’s unclear what authority the district has to demand Southwest Key hand the students over for schooling, or whether the district would be able to partner with the nonprofit to provide education. But she noted there’s some precedent — an immigration detention facility in Texas partnered with a charter school to provide education.
It’s unclear what kind of education the students are receiving under the care of Southwest Key, a nonprofit that contracts with the federal government to house the young detainees.
Few have gained access to the facility. The Arizona Department of Education has been barred from entering the facility and doesn’t know if the nonprofit is providing any education services, let alone adequate services, according to a department spokesperson.
The organization does not operate a charter school, and state Department of Education records show Estrella Del Norte, the Tucson facility run by Southwest Key, is listed as a “residential child care institution,” not a school.
But Southwest Key is advertising online for several teacher openings at its Tucson facility.
Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Southwest Key, said under the organization’s contract with the federal government, Southwest Key is required to provide six hours of education per day. That instruction focuses on language, math and geography, and physical education, and practical life skills the children will need in the U.S., such as explaining the currency, he said.
But Eller wouldn’t say whether that instruction is set around any defined curriculum, or whether it teaches to state standards.
State lawmakers who have been inside say it’s unclear whether the facility is following state and federal education laws and teaching to Arizona standards or merely engaged in long-term baby-sitting.
Lawmakers said the students didn’t even have textbooks. Eller wouldn’t comment.
“I’ve gone about as far as I can go on the record under the handcuffs that are placed on me by (the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement),” Eller said. Calls to the Office of Refugee Resettlement were not returned.
President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy resulted in thousands of immigrant children whose parents have been arrested while crossing the border being turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and then to private contractors operating immigration detention shelters like the one in Tucson.
But the policy sparked international outrage, and the political backlash forced Trump to sign an executive order ending the separations. Separately, a federal judge has ordered the administration to reunite all separated children with their families, though the administration has already missed some deadlines to do so.
Citizens and activists packed the TUSD Governing Board meeting Tuesday night, and erupted in applause when the motion passed unanimously.
Carol Gaxiola, a TUSD employee, urged Governing Board members to “stand on the right side of history during this horrible travesty” and do what they could to fight back against the policy and advocate for the children.
“(TUSD) needs to stand for these children and do what it can. Because they have no voice right now and we have to be their voice,” she said.
Rebeca Bennett, a longtime educator, said she worked at the facility in the summer of 2014, when there was an increase in unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border. But she left shortly after, unhappy with the way the facility ran.
“It was very much a detention facility. We had to walk them in lines, carry radios, report their every move. The facility was just being set up, but they had four big classes in one room, and not a lot of materials. I had somewhere between 30 and 40 girls at any time, and there were three other classes right next to mine with the same number of students,” she said.
Lillian Fox, a retired teacher, said it’s clear from witness accounts that the children there aren’t receiving a proper education. What’s less clear is what the district can do about it, she said.
“I don’t know that the district has any power to do anything about it, but I hope (TUSD’s attorney) has some magic solution, because it’s a really tough situation.”
TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said the district staff will treat the issue as “a priority of the utmost urgency” and will research the issue and have recommendations for the board to consider by Aug. 14.