By Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
An additional layer of security screening in Aurora schools has raised concerns about whether a system meant to keep kids safe may be keeping away parents and other family members who are not in the country legally.
Beginning this fall, everyone who enters a school in Aurora is being asked to present ID so staff can check names and dates of birth against a public database of registered sex offenders.
Visitors may present a state-issued ID or other documents such as a passport or consulate card from their home country, district officials say.
In a climate of fear about increased crackdowns on immigration, asking for that kind of documentation can have a chilling effect, said Corrine Rivera-Fowler, a policy and civic engagement director with Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a nonprofit advocacy group for parents.
“There is a heightened awareness that the government cannot be trusted,” she said. “Now that a parent may have to come into a school and provide the school an ID, that’s only going to heighten the anxiety. Even if they present a passport or other document, in their mind that’s an admission that they don’t have a U.S. document. You feel like you’re exposing yourself.”
District officials say they are sensitive to the concerns, and have sought to clearly communicate how the system works and what it’s all about with principals and parents.
School officials in Aurora already have voiced their own concerns about the current immigration climate dissuading parents from filling out important forms — including applications for free and reduced priced lunches — or even keeping kids out of school completely.
The Aurora school board, like others across the country, responded earlier this year by passing a resolution written by community members restating existing policies for how the district deals with immigration officials.
By then, work was well underway on the new security system. The Aurora district finished rolling out the Raptor Technologies system at all its schools at the start of this school year. At least seven Aurora schools started piloting the system in 2015-2016. And some schools went out on their own to buy it before the district rolled it out.
The Raptor system is already in use across several other school districts, including the Cherry Creek School District and Adams 12 school district in Thornton.
In Aurora, concerns about the security system surfaced last week at a school board candidate forum when an anonymous audience member wrote a question about it on a notecard.
“There is a new security system in APS that requires visitors to present a government ID to enter a building,” the attendee wrote. “How will you ensure access for undocumented parents to schools?”
Most of the candidates taking part in the forum were unaware of the policy. In the room full of immigrants and refugee families listening through translators on headsets, all eight school board candidates attending raised concerns about a system that could keep undocumented parents out of schools. Barbara Yamrick, one of the nine candidates vying for four seats in November’s election didn’t attend.
“We have to change this system immediately,” said school board candidate Kevin Cox.
“I’ve got questions,” said candidate Marques Ivey. “This is something that would definitely be addressed and looked at.”
Greg Cazell, the director of security for Aurora schools, said the district has worked on rolling out the security system for four years.
“It was a huge concern throughout the process, making sure we didn’t disenfranchise that population,” Cazell said.
In August, the district sent letters to all principals explaining how the system works: Only the name and date of birth get stored. The information is only compared to the public database of registered sex offenders. No information is shared with law enforcement or immigration agencies. If a person is registered, they may be denied access to the school, but if the person is a parent of a child at a school, officials at the school are required to escort the person while in the building.
The district sent letters home to all families and made automated phone calls home in several languages. Officers from the district’s security team, including some who speak Spanish, also host meetings at schools to talk to parents about how backgrounds checks are run for volunteers and are taking the time to explain the security system too.
“Generally once it’s been explained, there are no concerns,” Cazell said. “But that’s a challenge for my department in general because we do have armed uniformed officers. We’re not here to remove anyone. Our job is school safety. We constantly want to make sure that message is getting out.”
At Virginia Court Elementary, school leaders talked to families about the new system at back to school night and have conversations about it when people walk into the school. The principal, Kim Pippenger, said parents have not raised issues about access for undocumented families.
“As people come in they wonder why — why do we have this new system?” Pippenger said. “Our answer is always about student safety. I really haven’t had anyone come in with this concern.”
Raquel Amador, a parent and leader with RISE, the nonprofit that hosted last week’s candidate forum, said concerns about the security system discussed at the forum may have given people the wrong impression. Amador also works as a secretary at Fulton Academy.
“Saying the schools are giving a hard time to parents is not true,” Amador said. “I can say this is a very secure system for our kids’ security. It doesn’t have any risk for parents.”
Still, local immigration advocates say it wouldn’t hurt for the district to be more explicit in explaining the new system to families.
Rivera-Fowler, of Padres & Jovenes, said she compared the immigration policies enacted by Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. She said the one in Aurora is not as explicit as it could be.
Denver’s immigration resolution states the district will do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.
Aurora’s immigration resolution states that “absent any applicable federal, state, or local law, regulation, ordinance or court decision,” the district “shall not disclose, without parental or guardian consent, the immigration status or other personally identifiable information of any student.”
“In DPS it was really clear the district does not collect or share immigration information. We tried really hard to make sure they say that over and over,” Rivera-Fowler said. “It’s all about building trust, so explicitly putting that into a policy and then making sure it’s communicated over and over again is necessary.”
Cazell said his office has not been made aware of any parents losing access to a school. He can, however point to instances where the system is doing its job, he said.
In one recent case, a man entered a school and was identified as a registered sex offender. The man had no child at the school. Staff then learned he had tagged along with a parent who was visiting the school. He was denied access to the school and asked to wait outside while the parent went inside.
“It’s about knowing who is coming in our schools and making sure they’re safe to be around our students,” Cazell said. “And really to track who is in the building.”