County schools uncertain about possible refugees
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
Aug 21, 2014 | 1286 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print

A recent influx of unaccompanied refugee students from places like Mexico and nearby Central American countries has led to some of those students being placed in Tennessee. However, it is not clear whether any have enrolled in Bradley County Schools.

As reported in Wednesday’s edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner, the Cleveland City Schools system has confirmed that four of its current students had attained refugee status from other countries before enrolling in school in Cleveland. However, the city school system did not disclose those students’ countries of origin.

Director of Bradley County Schools Johnny McDaniel has told the Banner the county school system does not know of any refugees among its students.

If, in fact, the school system did have such students with them, it might not know it.

“Those aren’t questions that we ask a family,” McDaniel said. “Federal law says we cannot ask about immigration status.”

On May 8 of this year, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued a packet of documents meant to serve as a joint directive to the country’s schools to not discriminate against students seeking enrollment, even if they may not be legal residents.

Citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on factors like race, color or national origin, the documents reminded school officials of the need to prevent any discrimination from taking place. The directive also referenced the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case of Plyler vs. Doe, which it summarized by saying the case’s ruling meant “a state may not deny access to a basic public education to any child residing in the state, whether present in the United States legally or otherwise.” 

"Public school districts have an obligation to enroll students regardless of immigration status and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a press release. "The Justice Department will do everything it can to make sure schools meet this obligation. We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all."

McDaniel said that schools are not allowed to ask about students’ immigration status or refuse enrollment based on any suspicions of illegal status. He explained that schools can only ask about basic information like ages, addresses, guardians and the like.

That means student records might list who the student is living with, but it would not reveal anything else about a student’s living situation.

A student may be in foster care or living with relatives other than his or her parents, but it is up to the student and his or her guardian to decide whether or not to disclose that information.

The same thing goes for any relocation documentation the student might have.

McDaniel said the school system has no way of knowing whether or not there are students in Bradley County schools who have been part of the recent influx of minors finding their way into the country unaccompanied, unless someone volunteers that information.

While a large increase in the number of students enrolled in schools’ English as a Second Language programs could indicate a shift in the number of immigrant students enrolled, McDaniel added that there has not been a noticeable increase.

“I haven’t seen any major changes,” McDaniel said.

Melissa Mardis, the county’s head ESL teacher, said the school system has “held fairly steady” for the past few years, with the total numbers of ESL students staying mostly between 160 and 170 at a given time. While many of the ESL students do speak Spanish, she said “a surprising number” actually speak Russian or Ukrainian.

This semester’s ESL student numbers are not expected to be finalized until the first of October, but she also said she does not anticipate seeing a sudden shift in them.

While Mardis said she was aware that many school systems have seen refugee students from other countries, she has not heard any indication the county school system will have an influx of them this school year.

“We have not received any sort of word to expect that,” Mardis said.

She said some school systems elsewhere in the United States have received refugees from other countries where school is considered a luxury. Those school systems have sometimes had the challenge of teaching older students who had never been in school before.

However, she said she has found that many of the students from Mexico and Central America have attended school before. The biggest obstacle for those students is the language barrier.

If for some reason the county school system did receive such students, she predicted the main concern would be one that needs to be considered with every student body increase.

“The biggest issue for us is the student-teacher ratio,” Mardis said.

While a large increase of students could necessitate more being added to their ranks, Mardis stressed she and the county’s other ESL teachers are prepared to teach English to those who need to learn it.

“We welcome students who come from any type of background to the school system,” she said.