Immigration raid a crisis school hadn't planned for

DENISE SMITH AMOS, Cincinnati.Com, Sept. 13, 2007

At Heritage Hill Elementary, where 65 percent of the students are Hispanic, the first day of school was nearly a crisis.

That day, Aug. 28, immigration agents raided Koch Foods, a poultry packing plant in Fairfield, and arrested 161 suspected illegal immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and other countries.

Tianay Outlaw, principal at Heritage Hill, knew that some of her 310 students would be affected. With 45 percent of her students designated as "limited English proficient," Outlaw feared some youngster would be related to the detained workers.

"We found out almost immediately about the raid, because parents who worked there ... they called Heritage Hill," Outlaw said.

"One father said, 'Please, take care of the children,' " said Sonia Velez Rodriquez, a parent liaison and education aide at the school.

But which students? Who was going home after school to an empty house or apartment because of the raid? Whose families would be packing and leaving in fear, Outlaw wondered.

She tried to find out discreetly.

Because it was the first day of school, most parents hadn't yet filled out contact cards, indicating place of employment and emergency numbers.

Outlaw visited classrooms and asked students to raise their hands if they had parents working as a nurse. Or as a teacher. In a restaurant. Or elsewhere in the food business.

When she asked about Koch foods, five students raised their hands, though Outlaw suspected there were more.

"I was really trying to get information from them without alerting them or getting them nervous," she said.

When school ended and students boarded buses, teachers and school staff followed in cars, watching as children disembarked in neighborhoods and apartment complexes with high immigrant populations.

"We wanted to be sure of how many students would be affected and how many are not coming back," said Lynn Yosua, school psychologist.

Every child was met by a parent or relative, Outlaw said.

"We did see parents who had loaded up their cars and were ready to leave," Outlaw said. "They met us at the bus stop."

Some parents said they were unsure if their child would return to school; they didn't feel safe going home, said Velez Rodriquez.

"They took the most important things and they were gone," she said.

The next day at school about 20 kids were absent, but Outlaw said it was unclear how many absences were because of the raid.

Over the next few days, most students returned to school, Outlaw said, even though a few were not living at home but with relatives or friends.

Teachers talked with classes about how the raid affected some families, saying that some children may have to go back to the country their parents came from.

Only one student asked to speak with a school counselor.

"One student had nightmares because a family member was detained," said Lynn Yosua, school psychologist.

Yosua said Heritage Hill has crisis plans in place for most conventional threats to schools, such as natural disasters, but there's nothing in the crisis books about immigration raids.

"The unnerving thing was that this was the first day of school," Outlaw said. "But everyone went above and beyond the call of duty. Everyone had a common focus; it was the safety of our children."

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