In a year in which mass shootings devastated America’s schools, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions focused his address to a national gathering of school police on a different topic entirely: immigration.
“Children have indeed borne much of the burden from our broken immigration system,” Sessions told a gathering of the National Association of School Resource Officers in Reno, Nev. “And the children you serve are too. They are watching as their friends and even their family members are getting involved in drugs and getting trapped in the funnel of addiction that is being fed by drug cartels taking advantage of our porous southern border.”
The attorney general spoke amid a boiling national debate about the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, under which thousands of child migrants have been separated from their parents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week, charging federal officials with keeping families together, but doing so long term will require court approval to amend a legal agreement about the treatment of immigrant children.
Sessions also asked school officers to pay special mind to gangs like MS-13, a target of the administration that he said is recruiting immigrant children who come to the country as unaccompanied minors and are “terrorizing immigrant schools and communities from Los Angeles to Louisville to Long Island to Boston.” He highlighted a Washington Post article about the gang’s efforts to recruit students in a suburban Maryland middle school outside of Washington.
“The compassionate thing to do is to protect our children from drugs and violence, put criminals in jail, and secure our borders,” Sessions told the audience of about 1,000 school police officers. “Having an immigration system that has integrity and consistency is right and just and moral. The alternative is open borders—which is both radical and dangerous.”
Critics of the Trump administration’s immigration stance have said it is not providing adequate chances for migrants to request asylum as they cross the border. They say the choice between “open borders” and harsh enforcement tactics is a false one.
Sessions’ comments on immigration came after he listed names of school police who intervened in possible school shootings during the 2017-18 school year, including a Dixon, Ill., officer who quickly stopped an armed student from entering a school gymnasium during a high school graduation rehearsal last month.
Officials with NASRO, an organization that trains school law enforcement, said registrations for the conference were up about 25 percent this year in the wake of the mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas. States and districts around the country have responded by calling for more school police officers.
That rush to hire more law enforcement has created challenges for some schools, who’ve rushed to comply with new mandates. And it has concerned some civil rights groups who worry about police treatment of black and Latino students. A recent survey by the Education Week Research Center found that one in five school police do not believe their school is prepared for an active shooter, and some believe they have not received adequate training to work with students.
At the national level, Congress passed the STOP School Violence Act, which provides grant funding for violence prevention and threat assessment. Sessions highlighted the first grants the Department of Justice has issued under the act, including $50 million to train students and teachers to recognize the warning signs of violence and to develop a new threat reporting system, and $25 million “for better training and for technology to improve emergency reporting.” The Justice Department is also prioritizing distribution of grants that help local agencies hire officers to help hire school-based law enforcement, he said.
Sessions’ focus on immigration in his speech comes as some advocates for immigrant students fear school-based law enforcement could create a “school-to-deportation” pipeline for undocumented students, particularly if they are wrongly flagged as possible gang members.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed course earlier this month, saying that schools can’t report undocumented students to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. She faced a flood of criticism when she said in a previous congressional hearing that they had a choice about whether to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court decision Plyler v.Doe prohibits schools from discriminating against undocumented students.
Photo: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions talks about school safety and immigration at the NASRO School Safety Conference June 25 in Reno, Nev. --Andy Barron /The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP
Related reading about immigration, school police:
- Betsy DeVos: Schools Can Choose to Report Students to ICE. Advocates: She’s Wrong.
- There Are Times When Schools Can’t Shield Undocumented Families
- Educating Migrant Children in Shelters: 6 Things to Know
- Ready for a Shooter? 1 in 5 School Police Say No
- Video Games? Media? Bullying? No Single Cause for School Shootings, Experts Tell Safety Commission
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.