As waves of students staged walkouts and joined protests last week over proposed punitive changes to federal immigration law, school administrators sought a balance between allowing students to demonstrate peacefully and setting clear expectations that they should return to class soon.
Thousands of students nationwide marched in the streets or rallied in public parks, at state capitols, and in other locations. Some of the largest demonstrations were in California and Texas, but students have also rallied in Arizona, Nebraska, Virginia, and elsewhere across the country.
Some school leaders said the events were the largest and most quickly organized protests among precollegiate students they could remember.
While much of the activity had waned by late in the week, administrators said they had heard from students and others that additional protests were being planned.
Several principals and superintendents admitted to being taken aback by what they described as an unusually forceful display of civic activism among their students. At the same time, administrators said that in attempting to limit the disruption of classes, they used a variety of measures—from personal appeals to campus lockdowns to disciplinary action—to get students to return to campus or stay there.
At Metro Tech High School in Phoenix, about 400 of the 1,300 students walked out of classes on March 27, heading for a rally at the Arizona Capitol downtown. The next morning, Principal Frank Rasmussen met with about 300 of those students in the school’s auditorium, he said, asking them not to leave again—and reminding them that tougher penalties would follow if they did. The students complied, he said.
“Democracy is not just something where you oppose someone,” Mr. Rasmussen said in an interview last week. “It’s something you work through, and know how to use the system. I think there have been tremendous lessons here.”
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, an estimated 24,000 students walked out of 52 schools on March 27, from both high schools and middle schools, continuing protests that had begun the previous week. Officials in the 760,000-student district sent a letter to parents reminding them that students who left during school hours were violating compulsory-attendance policies. In addition, the letter said, they could be subject to criminal penalties if cited by police for loitering or other offenses.
“We cannot condone student walkouts that endanger their safety, and remove them from receiving instruction,” Los Angeles Superintendent Roy Romer wrote in an e-mail to Education Week. “There is a fine balance we must achieve here, but missing class is not the way to go.”
The student protests are among an eruption of demonstrations around the country in response to legislation pending in Congress that would significantly tighten enforcement of immigration laws.
Many immigrants and their supporters specifically object to a Republican-sponsored measure, which passed the House of Representatives in December, that would make illegal residence in the United States a felony. Currently, living with that status is a civil offense.
A separate bill approved March 27 by the Senate Judiciary Committee does not include that penalty. It would create a temporary-worker program and mechanisms through which illegal immigrants could take steps toward U.S. citizenship.
President Bush, meanwhile, continued his call last week for immigration reform that would include a temporary-worker program.
An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are in the United States today, about 1.8 million of whom are 18 years old or younger, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, in Washington. About 3 million U.S. citizens who were born in this country have a parent who is an illegal immigrant, according to the center.
“These [federal] measures would have direct impact on the futures of these kids, in a very profound way,” said Josh Bernstein, the director of federal policy for the National Immigration Law Center, also based in Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools must provide education without regard to immigration status, Mr. Bernstein noted. The vast majority of school officials have taken the decision—handed down in the 1982 case of Plyler v. Doe—as a sign not to ask about students’ citizenship, he said.
Last week, school officials were trying to sort out the more immediate legal and disciplinary questions emerging from student demonstrations in their districts.
Thomas Hutton, a staff lawyer for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said he believes all states have compulsory-attendance or anti-truancy laws that might come into play regarding students who walk out of school to join protests.
While schools can’t stop students from leaving campuses for demonstrations, schools also have the authority to respond with disciplinary action, he said. Districts such as Los Angeles were also right to warn students about potential criminal penalties, he said.
Some 30 students in San Diego were arrested last week by police for loitering and other offenses, said Music McCall, a spokeswoman for the 134,000-student city school district. Most were cited and released, she said.
The Associated Press reported March 30 that dozens of Houston students were arrested and a principal was disciplined for flying a Mexican flag in front of a school during a protest over the federal immigration legislation
In Phoenix, Mr. Rasmussen said, he had heard a broad range of public reactions, with some members of the community calling for him to be lenient with students and others urging him to be tough on those who walked out of school.
Students from the San Diego city system faced a variety of penalties for leaving school without permission, ranging from letters to parents for short absences to two-day suspensions for disruptive behavior in class upon returning, Ms. McCall said.
Officials in San Diego and Los Angeles also turned to nonpunitive strategies to attempt to get students back to schools safely. Both districts, for example, rolled out buses to various rally locations to pick up students who had had enough of the protests.
San Diego officials also asked principals at schools with high numbers of protesters to watch them to make sure they were safe.
One such chaperone was Elizabeth A. Cook, the principal at Marston Middle School, who ended up walking for about 90 minutes with students on their way to a rally at a San Diego park. About 80 students from her school left for protests on both Tuesday and Wednesday of last week.
Every 20 minutes or so, she encouraged the students—many of whom were likely to face detention or Saturday school upon their return—to turn back. A few did.
“I said to them, ‘I like the fact you’re thinking about these issues. We want you to think critically,’ ” Ms. Cook said. But she also made it clear that their actions brought consequences. “The law says you have to be in school. …The message is, you have choices,” she said
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Students Sound Off on Immigration