Educators fear dramatic raids on first day of school will leave lasting trauma

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Immigrants and their family members wait to seek legal help at Alpha and Omega Church of Deliverance in Forest, Miss., Saturday, August 10, 2019.

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When ICE raids hit the Jackson metro area in 2017, John Woodard was teaching math at Nichols Middle School in Canton. He still remembers the day, not long after the raids took place, when counselors brought the school’s Latino students into the library and he saw them “bawling crying for mom, for dad.”

“That’s the image I will never forget, and never want to see again honestly,” Woodard said. “I never want to see children hurt that way again.”

Woodard said he and his colleagues spent a good portion of that day just trying to calm the children down and make them smile, but it was only the beginning of challenges the school would see when it came to educating the kids.

“It really changed the whole mood of the school,” Woodard said.

Many students stopped coming to school out of fear, he said, and those who did come were visibly distraught.

“We couldn’t even teach them on the days the raids happened,” Woodard said. “They were pretty much done. It took days for us to get some of them to engage with the lessons and be comfortable enough to come back to school.”

Federal immigration raids can leave lasting trauma on the children of people detained. In the wake of Wednesday’s record-breaking raid, in which 680 people were arrested, educators and mental health advocates are now working to stem the effects of this trauma.

“The trauma these students have endured is inconceivable,” Mississippi Association of Educators president Erica Jones said Wednesday, when news of the raids first broke. “The effect this raid will have on their long term mental and emotional health is profound,” Jones said.

“Scientists tell us that a child’s brain changes when they witness violence at home or in their communities, or experience poverty, eviction, and hunger,” Jones told Mississippi Today on Friday.

But just what these educators need to do remains unclear. The sheer size of this raid, which U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst said was “believed to be the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history,” and the fact that Hurst’s office still did not know exactly how many children had been affected, “means we’re really in new territory,” said Cathy Grace, of the University of Mississippi’s Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning.

“How teachers are being prepared to address this (matters) because it’s not a common occurrence in such dramatic fashion,” Grace said.

The dramatic fashion to which Grace refers is not just the large scale of the raids, but the way federal officials executed them, arresting people first and only then alerting the children’s schools – a break with federal policy. As of Friday, federal officials still had not reached out to Mississippi’s child welfare agency. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called not prioritizing the children “unacceptable.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Church members pray in a filled sanctuary during Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s Spanish Mass service in Canton, Miss., Sunday, August 11, 2019.

Federal officials said Thursday they did not yet know how many children had been affected by the raids. As a result, schools have been left to piece together just who needs services, something Canton Public Schools Superintendent Gary P. Hannah said “makes (working with the students) more difficult. You piece it together.”

In Canton, which weathered the 2017 raids, 70 students had not returned to school on Thursday, the day after the raids took place. Schools identified those students and referred the 20 students who returned Friday to counselors. But Hannah admitted knowing exactly who needed help would make it easier.

In addition, there does not appear to be state-wide protocol in place to address dealing with this kind of trauma, so school districts and state agencies are taking their own approaches.

Area school districts have said they are working to ensure the safety and security of their students, regardless of immigration status or nationality. The Jackson Public School District, for example, acknowledged on its website that “recent raids and arrests by federal immigration officials in Mississippi have heightened a sense of anxiety for families and students.”

The district also posted several resources for educators and administrators with information about undocumented students and how to handle the topic of immigration raids, as well as information about ICE’s ability to arrest immigrant staff or students inside schools.

JPS spokesperson Sherwin Johnson told Mississippi Today the district is working with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA) to provide resources and information, and has led conversations with principals and school staff on how to help people affected by the raids.

“Scholars learn better when they are in environments they view as safe, supportive, and positive,” Johnson said. “We are intentionally leading our schools and classrooms in ways that foster a sense of belonging and trust.”

Last fall, the Department of Mental Health received a grant to offer mental health training for educators to schools statewide. Since the raids, the agency has reached out again to all schools in affected districts to offer the program. Mississippi’s Child Protection Services agency said all its employees had received training in trauma informed care and were offering services to the schools. They also said they were available to refer any children and families to counseling.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Attorney Benjamin D. Thornton gives legal advice to Immigrants and their family members help at Alpha and Omega Church of Deliverance in Forest, Miss., Saturday, August 10, 2019.

And that’s the biggest part, Hannah said. The children whose parents have been detained aren’t the only ones experiencing trauma and stress from the raids. Friends of the students, teachers, school custodians, anyone, he said, who had cared for these children “was traumatized.”

“People need to understand how it plays out. It affects everyone. It’s going to leave a lasting effect on everyone,” Hannah said.

During the raids in 2017, Woodard, the former math teacher, said he saw the effects even in his students who weren’t personally affected.

“In education, we’re told to engage our students in the lessons. That was thrown right out the door,” Woodard said. “The primary issue was some of them didn’t even know when they got home whether their parents would be there.”

MAE president Jones said decision for the raids to occur on the first day of school was “barbaric.”

“To have such a horrific event occur on the first day means that everyone affected—students, educators, families, administrators, entire communities—will forever associate the first day of school with fear and uncertainty,” Jones said.

Read Mississippi Today’s full coverage on the recent ICE workplace raids.