WASHINGTON — Teachers and educators across the country say President Donald Trump’s strict stance on immigration has created palpable fear in the classroom, with students missing classes, letting grades slip and exhibiting emotional and behavioral problems amid fear of losing family to deportation.
The findings were contained in a report released Wednesday by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, which surveyed more than 730 schools in 24 districts in 12 states about the impact of the administration's immigration enforcement measures on teaching and learning.
Researchers found that 64 percent of the 5,400 teachers, administrators and other school personnel who responded said they had observed students who were concerned about immigration issues that may affect them, their families or people they know.
“We have one student who had attempted to slit her wrists because her family has been separated and she wants to be with her mother,” one Maryland teacher told researchers, who promised anonymity to respondents. “She literally didn’t want to live without her mother.”
Another teacher told of checking up on a student who was not eating or talking. The girl’s friends said she had come home from the prom “to find her mom deported and never had the chance to say goodbye or anything,” according to the report.
Experts elaborated on the findings of the research in a news conference on Wednesday.
Patricia Gándara, co-director of Civil Rights Project, said researchers started the survey after increasingly hearing from school personnel about problems in schools stemming from the administration's talk and action on immigration.
The hardest-hit schools are already struggling with achievement gaps and often are the poorest, according to the survey. Although they weren’t targeted, 82 percent of the respondents are associated with Title 1 schools — those with high numbers or shares of poor children.
“The schools that are the most vulnerable in this country are also the ones being hit hard with the unintended consequences of this immigration enforcement," Gándara said, "and until we do something about that, those schools are going to continue to suffer.”
Schools in the South were most affected. More than one of seven educators in the South and one in eight nationally, reported that students’ learning was significantly affected because of their concern over classmates' being deported.
“This is affecting everybody," Gándara said. "Other kids in the classroom, in the school, these are their friends, and their classmates are walking into the classroom and seeing empty chairs.”
“There are a lot of heartbreaking cases,” he said.
One of his students this year is 6 and his mother can’t get health care because she is not here legally. Her kidneys are failing. She struggles daily with whether to go back to Mexico to get care and risk being able to return to her child.
Students feel the effect of the president's rhetoric on immigrants at a “visceral” level, he said. One young student he found crying soon after Trump’s election told him she and her mom would have to put their things in a bag that night in case they were forced to leave.
“I always kind of think our job is to help kids live the lives they dream. It goes so far beyond teaching, reading and writing and math. It’s making them feel safe,” Minkel said. “There is a real feeling of not being safe.”
He said the school superintendent has been supportive and has told the district personnel that where the children come from doesn’t matter, because “once they walk through the door they are our children.”
Lupita Ley Hightower, superintendent at Tolleson Elementary School District in Tolleson, Arizona, said teachers often call her about how to console or counsel students "in crisis" over immigration because she was once undocumented herself.
She said her school has a number of programs to help ease fears, including working with parents to provide information about their rights, connecting students seen as anxious or depressed with an individual "caring adult," training teachers and encouraging children to "time travel" to see themselves in reaching their future dreams. She said they refer to their children as kids at hope, rather than kids at risk.
Children come to school in tears, worried that their parents will be taken away and that immigration officers are going to come into the school and arrest them, Domenech said. Children are also dealing with backlash from other students who taunt them, he said, such as chanting “build the wall,” which was often heard at Trump’s campaign rallies and speeches.
“The atmosphere in school is certainly affected and charged,” Domenech said. “Students are very much being impacted by this. They live in fear.”
That adds to the litany of issues educators are dealing with, including school shootings and anxiety over loss of health care. Although Congress eventually funded the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, potential cuts to Medicare funding have put about $4 billion in funding for special education in jeopardy, Domenech said.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said at Wednesday's news conference that a second grade teacher from Colorado sought her advice on explaining the behavior of one of her students to his classmates.
"She said one of my students comes to school every day - this is a kindergarten student - with what he calls 'all my special things in case they come to get me.' She said 'How do I explain to the other kindergartners what he is afraid of?'"
She added later, "For the first time in history, the children of our country are afraid of our president ... it's why they are turning to us, it's why they are turning to their teachers, to someone they can trust," she said.
Gándara said the survey found teachers, counselors and administrators are also feeling stress and anxiety because of what their students are facing and the atmosphere they're trying to educate in.
Many respondents said they had students with family members who had been deported and the deportations were known to the entire class and community, which reinforced fears about students’ own safety or of their friends.
“I want to tell them things will be all right, to make them feel better, but I know I cannot truthfully say this,” one teacher said in the survey. “Things may not be all right.”
Additional findings from the survey include:
Eighty percent of respondents said they had seen behavioral or emotional problems in students as a result of stepped-up immigration enforcement. The problems were usually described as crying, being unable to speak, being distracted or feeling depressed.
A clear majority (57.4 percent) of respondents said they are seeing increased absenteeism, which can affect school funding. Respondents reported students hiding for days while news of raids circulated. By skipping school, some children miss the only meal they may get that day.
More than 60 percent of respondents reported some decline in academic performance in students, although they also reported notable resilience in spite of the circumstances. Teachers reported seeing grades plummet among students who had been high achievers or had been working toward college.
Students are going to work to help support families or take on a missing parent’s duties. For example, one fourth-grade teacher in the Northeast told researchers that her student “told me that her mom is teaching her how to make food and feed her baby sister in case the mom is taken away.”
More than 85 percent of teachers and administrators reported increased of their own anxiety and stress over what their students' are going through. They also reported a sense of helplessness. One elementary school administrator told the researchers he found himself "lying awake at night over whether I should offer to take temporary custody of a child or children in the event that their parents are deported unexpectedly, and that is emotionally exhausting in an entirely new way."