Colorado Town Debates Whether School Police Can Also Work for ICE

Kids in the tiny town of Carbondale had to see their school police officer also deport their families during immigration raids.

By Julianne Hing Oct 21, 2011

What happens when the police officer who works at your high school also happens to moonlight as an immigration agent conducting raids in the neighborhood where you live? Latino middle and high school students in the small Colorado town of Carbondale started reporting exactly this over a year ago, along with the fear that their school resource officer was using information he learned at school to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement pick up parents in the town.

Now, the school board for Carbondale’s Roaring Fork School District is considering a policy that would bar police officers from serving such dual roles.

"When it comes to immigration, mixing it with law enforcement is very problematic," said Alan Kaplan, a spokesperson for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. Kaplan’s group has been collecting stories from students and parents in the neighborhood for over a year and proposed the new policy. "We think trust is paramount, and in a 52 percent Latino district, a lot of families are mixed status families, so even if someone is a citizen, their family often has someone who is not."

Kaplan said that the issue first came to CIRC’s attention when middle and high school students in the town said they noticed their School Resource Officer, whose job it is to deter crime and build relationships between the school community and law enforcement, was also participating in ICE raids in their homes. It turned out that the officer, who has since ended his participation on ICE’s local anti-gang task force, was also charged with tracking, investigating and apprehending undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions.

"ICE raids are nasty business, and a lot of people have seen the work of ICE up close," Kaplan said. "Having the SRO be involved with that is very problematic because the kid sees him deport their dad and then they have to see him in school the next day."

It turned out that such dual appointments were not limited to the small town of around 6,000 people. Since CIRC raised concerns about this partnership, officials have confirmed that at least two SRO’s in neighboring Glenwood Springs also worked on an ICE task force, Kaplan said.

According to a 1982 Supreme Court decision that protected the rights of every child regardless of their immigration status to attend public school, the school district has a legal mandate to be sensitive to anything that might deter students from attending school, said Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Colorado. This week, the ACLU sent a letter to the Roaring Fork School Board urging them to adopt the policy. Wallace said that the policy they support is actually a very narrow request meant only to protect students’ educational rights.

"All we are doing is saying when you choose the one or two officers who are going to be school resource officers, those should not be the ones who are collaborating with ICE," Wallace said, adding that while the ACLU has tracked the damaging impacts of having police officers also enforce immigration policy, they’re not even engaging in a debate about that at this point.

"It doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out that when students in small communities hear that their SRO is engaging in home raids with ICE at their family member’s doors that those students would reasonably fear either A, coming to school or B, having an open and honest relationship with the SRO which is necessary for the SRO to do their job."

The proposed change has not come without pushback in the town from local police officers who insist that immigrant students are safe at school.

"I want to make it perfectly clear that kids in our schools have nothing to fear from the SROs, and they have nothing to fear from ICE," Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson said at a press conference last week along with police chiefs from two other neighboring towns, the Post Independent reported. They confirmed that there were SROs who also worked on an ICE task force, but that SROs never blurred that line between their two jobs.

CIRC insists that immigrants have had a vastly different experience, and organized a community forum to help bring student and parents’ voices to the forefront so that school board officials can understand the impact of the current practice on their town. The school board is set to meet next week to consider the proposed policy.