Equity & Diversity

Arizona Immigration Law Creates Uncertain Role For School Police

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 14, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 4 min read
An undocumented Arizona family gazes out the window of their home in Phoenix. The family is among those who withdrew their children from school after the state enacted a controversial immigration law in April.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe as barring schools from determining students’ immigration status because of a potential “chilling” effect on their right to an education. That interpretation is offered by lawyers, but it is not in the court’s opinion.

Nearly two months after Arizona enacted a controversial law requiring police officers to ask about the immigration status of suspected undocumented immigrants involved in a “lawful stop, detention, or arrest,” educators, police agencies, and advocates are beginning to sort out what the new requirements mean for the police officers who work in public schools.

Meanwhile, at least one school district with a large Latino population saw a drop in enrollment right after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed the measure into law on April 23. It is scheduled to go into effect July 28.

“It seems to be clear that some of our families are leaving Arizona to move to other states where they feel they can work and where they feel more welcome,” said Jeff Smith, the superintendent of Balsz Elementary School District #31, in Phoenix. He said his 2,700-student district has lost about 100 students since the legislation was signed, compared with only seven students over a similar time span a year ago.

In the view of some observers, the law presents a potential conflict for school resource officers, who are employed by local police departments in Arizona, rather than school districts. The chance for conflict looms in part because, while police agencies may be compelled to follow the new immigration law, schools are obligated to comply with Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says students’ right to a free K-12 public education did not depend on their immigration status. Many lawyers interpret the ruling as directing schools to avoid any attempts to determine the immigration status of a student because it might have a chilling effect on students’ right to an education.

But Gov. Brewer doesn’t believe the law will have an effect on the precedent set by Plyler v. Doe. “It only arises when there’s a lawful stop, detention, or arrest for some other crime by law enforcement,” a spokeswoman for the governor wrote in an e-mail. “If a student is arrested for a crime, SB [Senate Bill] 1070 will require the student’s immigration status to be checked (there’s no exception for minors), however; that does not conflict with Plyler.”

Breaking Precedent?

Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the Arizona law signals that, “for the first time, there would be immigration enforcement in schools, which has always been against federal policy.”

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund joined other civil rights groups June 4 in filing a motion asking a federal court to block the law’s implementation. Their main claim is that it violates a clause in the U.S. Constitution leaving immigration regulation exclusively to the federal government, Mr. Saenz said.

He said a provision in the new state law permitting anyone to sue a police officer for not enforcing it also pushes for broad application of the law. Mr. Saenz said he can see how the law could be interpreted to require police officers to ask about immigration status when students are involved in a wide range of violations, if the school resource officers are deemed to be “law-enforcement officials” while in schools.

Likewise, Chris Thomas, the general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association, believes that SB 1070, could bring changes for undocumented students attending school. “If police are investigating a crime, not just a violation of school rules, there may be an issue where the police are compelled to ask about immigration status,” he said.

Mr. Thomas said it’s not clear what kinds of school incidents might be deemed by officers as crimes that warrant inquiries about immigration status. Two students fighting, for instance, could be deemed to involve assault, but typically it’s dealt with as an internal school matter, he said.

Not ‘Nailed Down’

In the end, Mr. Thomas said, it will be up to local police officials to interpret how to enforce the new law.

Sgt. Tommy Thompson, a spokesman for the Phoenix police department, said his department still hasn’t “nailed down” procedures for how school resource officers will enforce the law. He said Phoenix police are waiting for the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to provide guidance on the law, expected to be released June 30.

In the meantime, some activists have asked board members of the Phoenix Union High School District to decide not to comply with the new law.

Craig Pletenik, the community-relations manager for the 25,000-student school district, said the request came from members of a Phoenix-based group, Tonatierra, which includes former and current employees of the district. But the school board declined, he said.

At the same time, the district’s lawyer, Lynne C. Adams, recently gave a school board presentation saying that the Plyler v. Doe decision trumps SB 1070, and that the district’s school resource officers “are not going to put immigration hats on overnight,” Mr. Pletenik said. But, he added, “if someone gets busted for marijuana and they get handed over to the school resource officers, all bets are off.”

Assuring Safety

Other districts are trying to assure immigrant parents they aim to keep schools safe for undocumented students, while acknowledging they don’t control how local police working in schools will carry out the law.

The Cartwright Elementary School District in Phoenix, with an 18,000-student enrollment that is 90 percent Latino, hosted a parent meeting in May with an immigration lawyer from the Mexican consulate to talk about the repercussions of SB 1070, according to Meri Simmons, the district’s community-relations director. Earlier, the district sent a letter home to parents, telling them schools were safe for their children and educators wouldn’t be asking for any immigration papers.

Ms. Simmons said that the district lost 259 students from April to the end of the school year, but that was comparable with the loss it experienced over a similar time span last year.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ariz. Immigration Law Creates Uncertain Role For Police on Campus

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