City Council Sanctuary Schools Hearing Comes to St Stephens Church,Where Ideas Began

In a little room in the top floor of the St. Stephens Youth Programs in the South End’s St. Augustine Church, several high school students in late November through January began thinking about how important it would be for their schools to become sanctuaries as immigration policy began to change.

The students debated the merits, discussed the matter and brought it to the attention of about every elected official they could find.

Apparently, the Boston City Council heard them.

On Tuesday, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson called for a hearing on a resolution for the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to commit to sanctuary protections for immigrant students. Over 150 people were packed into the sanctuary of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End to ask the city to protect all students. Students, educators, parents, school nurses, faith leaders and immigrant rights organizations testified in support of this resolution.

City Councilors Matt O’Malley, Anissa Essabai-George, Ayanna Pressley, and Andrea Campbell were there, in addition to a representative from Council President Michelle Wu’s office.

Youth organizers have called on leaders from City Hall and the Bolling Building to commit to strong and clear protections for all students, regardless of immigration status. These organizers have asked BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang to communicate with all BPS families in all applicable languages with unequivocal and specific language that clarifies the ways in which BPS will keep all of its students and their family members safe. Students have recognized the need for this kind of decisive action from elected leaders since November, and they demanded material commitments of resources and policy to back up rhetoric and promises.

In the absence of decisive action from the Mayor or the Superintendent, City Councilor Tito Jackson said he called for a hearing on a resolution to implement sanctuary protections across the school district. Students, teachers, school nurses, and community leaders on Tuesday shared testimony of their experience of trauma and terror that has existed since long before the Presidential Election, but which they said has greatly intensified since.

BPS Elementary School teacher is Verónica Navarro testified, “It has been the toughest part of my career in the last seven years.” She continued, “I don’t know what to tell my students- I don’t know how to make them feel safe. Becoming a sanctuary school district would give me a concrete reply to assure my students of their safety. It is common knowledge in the education and health fields that students cannot access their cognitive brains if their basic needs aren’t met. One of those basic needs is safety. To simplify- students can’t learn when they are afraid.”

A student testified: “students deserve to be safe…not just told that they are.”

Another student said, “BPS must declare the schools sanctuary- even if stuff comes up later, they must take the first step.”

Councilor Jackson concluded the hearing with a call to continue to take action, “If we stand idly by, we are complicit. We are co-signing.”

He then read from  “The New Colossus,” the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty with the intent to welcome new immigrants written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish socialist feminist and early Zionist who came from a family of refugees.

Organizers asked for everyone in attendance to call Mayor Walsh’s office at 311 every single day until Boston has the strongest sanctuary school protections in the country.

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