Education leaders reassure students in wake of Trump orders

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MONTPELIER — Under the deceptively mild heading "Preserving a Strong and Vital Vermont," Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe has issued a blistering critique of President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration, calling them a way of distracting from issues of poverty and racism at home.

"Vermont strongly stands against the prejudice and intolerance that characterize the current immigration proposals coming out of Washington," Holcombe wrote in the memo to school administrators and teachers, "as well as casual talk about federal National Guard and law enforcement intervention in communities whose real challenges stem from the ravages of poverty or racism."

Fifty percent of Winooski High School's students, for example, are in the English language learners program. Most of those students, according to Superintendent Sean McMannon, are from refugee families.

After the executive order there was a great deal of confusion and uncertainty among refugee students and their parents, McMannon said.

"Our refugee families have been impacted significantly by this executive order," McMannon said.

A number of refugee families have relatives in camps who were slated to arrive sometime after the order went into effect. That weekend, according to McMannon, one of the school's Nepali families showed him a photo of family members at an airport in Kathmandu with their bags, which had tags for Burlington on them. They were sent back to the refugee camp, he said.

McMannon said the school has worked to reach out to refugee communities and to provide students and parents with resources and information about the executive order. "We're really reminding our staff that our role as a school during these challenging times is to first and foremost make sure our students and families feel safe and feel welcome," he said.

Holcombe said part of the reason for writing the memo was to clarify that under federal law all children, regardless of immigration status, have a right to public education. She said the letter was an affirmation of existing policy both from a legal and moral point of view.

"The other purpose of the letter was to emphasize that we go beyond meeting our legal obligation," Holcombe said. "It actually means working proactively to ensure all students feel safe, supported and welcome."

Holcombe issued her memo two days after Gov. Phil Scott released a statement strongly condemning the executive action and pledging to protect the rights of all Vermonters. Scott and a group of state officials and policymakers have drafted legislation aimed at safeguarding the state's immigrant and refugee communities from what he calls the "overreach of the federal government."

Meanwhile the executive order itself has come under fire from state attorneys general and is being challenged in courts across the country.

A judge in Washington state issued a sweeping order that temporarily blocked nearly all of the provisions of the executive order, including the suspension of the refugee resettlement program. That order was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a sharp rebuke to the Trump administration. However, the ruling will almost certainly be appealed and could end up before the Supreme Court.

As the executive order winds its way through the courts, immigrant and refugee families in Vermont are grappling with the uncertainty of what comes next.

Rainbow Chen, a senior at Winooski High School and one of two student members of the state board of education, said the Monday after the executive order was unusually tense and the hallways were buzzing with conversation. Winooski has one of the most diverse populations in the state, with students from the Middle East, South Asia, Nepal and East Africa.

"Everyone is welcome in our district," Chen said. "Knowing that these people, who I work so closely with, are people who might be in danger or have family members who might be in danger — to me that's very critical."

The Monday after the executive order was signed, Burlington School District Superintendent Yaw Obeng sent a message to students and families underscoring that the district "welcomes ALL students, from every background, faith, language group and national origin."

In Rutland students have also been grappling with the fallout from the executive order on immigration. According to Patricia Alonso, world language department chair at Rutland High School, students had formed a club to welcome Syrian refugee students. They were devastated to learn the program had been indefinitely suspended as a result of the president's actions, Alonso said.

Rutland has been at the heart of the refugee resettlement debate, and one week before the executive order was signed, the first two Syrian families arrived in the city.

Three of the Syrian children have enrolled in the Rutland schools and, according to Superintendent Mary Moran, are adapting quickly.

"They're being welcomed by classmates and teachers in the community," Moran said.

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