ROGERS PARK — Chicago Public Schools’ push for a more intense background check policy for adults may also end up silencing undocumented parents who want to participate in their local school council.
The district’s fingerprint rules are now being enforced for the first time, CPS parents say. That new enforcement push comes after a Chicago Tribune report exposed hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse at schools. In June, CPS announced it would require employees, coaches, volunteers and vendors — essentially anyone who may come in contact with a student — to undergo comprehensive background checks ahead of the new school year.
But a Rogers Park parent worries the way the policy is now being enforced by CPS forces parents who are undocumented immigrants to make a choice between their safety and participating in the governance of their children’s school.
“We just want to make totally clear that the safety of children always comes first,” said Annie Gill-Bloyer, chair of New Field Elementary School’s local school council. “We don’t want to advocate for a policy that would put children at risk. [But] like many Chicago schools, we have a significant immigrant population.”
There are 661 students currently enrolled at New Field, 1707 W. Morse Ave., according to CPS data. About 44 percent of those students are Hispanic and the school offers Spanish as a bilingual language alongside refugee services.
And out of 371,382 students enrolled in CPS as of October 2017 about 47 percent, the majority, were Hispanic, according to CPS data.
David Tolen, a member of New Field’s council, has been contacted by CPS multiple times in recent months about getting fingerprinted and he’s been avoiding it because he’s undocumented.
“I’m not going to let someone push me around,” Tolen said. “That’s not who I am and not what I want to teach my boy.”
Tolen went to school in Mexico and wanted to join New Field’s council to learn more about the school system in Chicago. His son isn’t old enough to enroll at New Field yet, but over the summer he was elected to the council to represent the community that lives around the school.
“Before I ran to be on the council, I asked some people on school councils about this. They all told me the same thing,” Tolen said. “They told me there’s no way they’re going to enforce [the fingerprinting]. I hoped that was true.”
But since his term started in July, Tolen has been repeatedly contacted by CPS about being fingerprinted. If he doesn’t submit to the background check, he said he’s been told he will be forced off the council.
Sitting in a Rogers Park cafe on Tuesday afternoon, Tolen said he understands the irony of speaking to Block Club about his immigration status as it relates to CPS’s fingerprinting policy.
“When I realized I was going to be singled out for this, I almost stepped down from the council. That was the easiest way for me to have peace of mind,” he said. “But then I started thinking, it’s not fair. It’s not just me. There are thousands of people like me who have their kids at CPS. And it’s unfair that even though we are the majority ethnicity at CPS, we can’t say something about our children’s education.”
New Field’s council — like others at public schools across the city — is tasked with approving how school funds and resources are used, developing and monitoring the a school’s yearly improvement plan and evaluating and selecting a school’s principal.
These councils host meetings once a month at the school that include six parents, two community members, two teachers, one member of the school’s non-teaching staff and its principal. At the high school level, a student is also part of the council.
“All the research says students do better when their parents are involved in the school. However with this new enforcement of the fingerprint background checks a lot of undocumented parents may feel being part of a local council won’t be worth it to them,” Gill-Bloyer said. “They just don’t know how their fingerprint information will be used in this environment of zero tolerance immigration policies.”
Chicago has a “welcoming city” rule on the books aimed at protecting undocumented residents by not asking for or disclosing citizenship information to federal authorities. The rule also says it will not deny residents city services based on immigration status. But as a federal agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can operate in Chicago regardless of the city’s rules and often uses city data to conduct its deportation raids.
“That’s a real concern. A local school council meets at a school once a month. It’s the only elected body where any parent, regardless of immigration status or education, can play an active role in their children’s education as an elected official,” said Rebecca Martinez, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union. “We know all these sort of databases are tied up together. So how do we know this info isn’t going to flag and expose people’s status?”
For instance, the Chicago police department’s gang database — which is full of errors and the subject of a class-action lawsuit from people who allege they’ve been erroneously placed on it — has regularly been used by ICE to detain people in the city. Because of this, undocumented parents are weary of the push by CPS for fingerprinting to participate in local school councils.
After President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Martinez said a group of organizations and the teacher’s union met to talk about how CPS policies could put undocumented people in harm’s way.
“One of the things that did come up was the local school council background checks and parent volunteers,” Martinez said. “So we came up with a resolution that laid out a bunch of different points that said this needs to change to increase protections for undocumented folks.”
Read the 2016 proposal below.
The proposal from 2016 included a recommendation that fingerprint background checks only be applied to adults who spend over 25 hours at a school and that CPS “eliminate access to and the use of the gang database by school security officers, school police or CPD officers placed at CPS.”
Martinez said CPS didn’t accept their recommendations.
Now, a new letter signed by community members and local school councils is again asking CPS to revise its background check policy so undocumented parents can have a say in how the schools their children attend are governed.
“Participation in an LSC by definition does not occasion, entail, or in any way require unsupervised one-on-one interaction with students. In their capacity as LSC members, most Parent and Community Representatives are present in school buildings once or twice a month, for one or two hours at a time, in public meetings with at least seven adults in the room,” the letter said. “LSC members abide by the same regulations and rules governing any non-staff adult visitor on school premises. They must be checked in and out of the building by security.”
The letter, which has 55 signatures from community organizations, local schools councils and neighborhood residents, will be presented to the CPS school board at their Sept. 26 meeting.
Emily Bolton, a spokesperson with CPS, said state law explicitly requires a fingerprint-based background check for LSC members and the district makes prospective LSC candidates aware of the requirement before running for their position.
“The district remains committed to improving efforts to bolster student safety and protections and we also remain a district that welcomes and values all families from all backgrounds,” Bolton said.
Bolton did not address the parent allegations that CPS did not previously enforce its own fingerprinting policy. However the district began requiring people applying for a job with the district to undergo a fingerprint-based background check in the mid-1990s and requiring coaches and volunteers to pass a fingerprint-based criminal background check in 2014, according to Bolton.
“CPS’s background check process has surpassed state standards for many years, but in recent years a renewed focus on strengthening background checks has been underway,” she said in a statement.
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