One district’s move to create a safe haven

by Jessie Ryan

Immediately following the 2016 Presidential election, I had students crying and asking how they can maintain hope in the face of such rhetoric,” said Elizabeth Villanueva, a high school teacher in Sacramento City Unified School District. “I told them to empower each other by gaining and sharing knowledge with those around them.”

The School Board of the Sacramento City USD listened to the fears and concerns of students and the community and responded with a strong message in support of protecting students from possible deportation. On Dec. 8, the District unanimously approved a Safe Haven School District Resolution, one of the first of its kind in the nation.

The board’s passage of the Safe Haven resolution outlined a roadmap for gathering and disseminating key information, including how best to support and provide resources to students and their families. Since then, their effort has been lifted up as a statewide model by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and recognized by others throughout the nation.

The Sacramento City USD Safe Haven Resolution highlights a 2011 federal policy stating that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will not conduct raids at any sensitive location such as school sites. The resolution further requires all ICE agents to gain prior written approval from the superintendent before coming on to district properties. It also restricts the sharing of personal data files, calls for additional professional development opportunities for staff and emphasizes the importance of multicultural activities across the district.

“The board resolution was a critical first step in informing students, families and the community that we stand behind them and that we value their ongoing safety during these troubling times,” said Sacramento City USD’s Superintendent José L. Banda. “Now the real work of staff and community partners is underway as we continuously strive to aid our families with this effort.”

Since the passage of the resolution, district staff continue to engage with partners to best understand what resources, information and assurances students and families need to help keep them safe and secure at school.

“It is important to not only educate our students and families, but empower them to stand up for their human rights,” said Villanueva. “We must provide the tools so they are not paralyzed with anxiety. Fear is simply the lack of information and resources.”

Villanueva has been facilitating an after-school student group called New Age Latinas in partnership with the Puente Project, a program run at Sacramento City College. The effort focuses on college readiness, linguistics and culture. New Age Latinas students have organized a guest speaker series for the community that invites lawyers, activists and undocumented university students and professors to discuss rights and privileges. Some of those same students are also planning the development of a student resource center on their campus as part of their senior project.

“Many of the supports that have developed around the Safe Haven movement have come from the grassroots level like New Age Latinas, and district staff continues to implement various districtwide activities based upon feedback from our school sites,” said Banda.

The district maintains and updates an online repository of resources gathered from students, staff and partners. Online resources include email notifications, Know Your Rights cards, community pledge cards, local immigration legal panels, hotline numbers and professional support for staff.

Sacramento City USD also continues to hold various activities focused on building inclusion and trust. One such series of events took place in February. Known as the Art of Compassion, students were invited to perform and document acts of compassion in either their school or home community through digital, visual or performance arts. Participating students were also encouraged to enter their completed project for award/scholarship consideration through a partnership with the city of Sacramento.

Since the passage of the resolution, SCUSD staff also continue to regularly engage with community and labor partners to best understand what resources, information and assurances students and families need to help keep them safe and secure.

“As a community partner, it is our role to provide input on what the community needs and wants, and to help disseminate district information,” said Jason Weiner, a community organizer with Sacramento Area Congregations Together. “Not everyone is going to hear about this effort through the newspaper or school board meeting minutes.”

As part of these efforts and the Safe Haven initiative, Sacramento City USD has developed a list of events that engages their students and community in outward displays of acceptance, tolerance and multiculturalism. Events large and small are included in an effort to bring greater levels of understanding and unity to the district.

“We quickly engaged various partners and school site staff across the district to learn what our families and students needed most,” said Banda. “We also wanted to ensure that the resolution illustrates our commitment to providing a safe haven that extends beyond the walls of the school building. It has to be something that permeates throughout the school district and beyond.”

Jessie Ryan, first vice president of the Sacramento City USD Board of Education, is a proud product of public education. She has spent the past twelve years at the Campaign for College Opportunity where she works to increase college access and success for young people across the state.


*This story was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of California Schools Magazine, a publication of the California School Boards Association.