California Educator

January / February 2017

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Keeping Students Safe Educators work to help students feel supported and focused during an uncertain time By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin Photos by Scott Buschman R amon Espinal's second-graders at Rosa Parks Elementar y School in San Diego are dis- cussing current events, including the recent presidential election. One girl confides she is "scared" her parents may be sent back to Guatemala. A boy says that his parents "don't have papers," or are undocumented. "If they have to go back to Mexico, I will be very sad. I'll have to live with my grandma." How changes in the White House and Congress may affect certain student populations has stirred up fear and anxi- ety in schools and campuses across the country. In California, CTA members are striving to help students feel safe, sup- ported and focused. But it's not easy. "My kids are not that clear on what a presidential election really means," says Espinal, San Diego Education Associa- tion (SDEA). "But when they start talking about how they don't want to be sepa- rated from their parents, the hair on my arms goes straight up." Espinal fights tears when talking pri- vately about challenges his students may face. But in the classroom, he pro jects calm and reassurance that school is a safe place. "I think it's helped. Many of them took a deep breath and showed physical relief." He encourages youngsters to think positive. "I don't want you to be afraid," he says. "Instead, focus on what you'd like to be. Some of you want to be teachers, or firefighters, or police officers, or artists. These are the kinds of things you should be thinking about." STUDENTS ANXIOUS, SCARED The election traumatized students everywhere, say CTA members. In communities with high numbers of stu- dents who feel marginalized by the new administration — including students of color, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer youth — that's especially true. Elvia Estrella, a counselor at San Ysidro High School in San Diego, notices students are less forthcoming with per- sonal information since the election. "I recently asked a student who was frequently absent and making little prog- ress whether his parents were involved," she recalls. "He said, 'My dad is around, but we don't talk about him.' When we developed more trust, he revealed his dad is undocumented and fears deporta- tion. It broke my heart. In my 12 years as a school counselor, I've never heard that kind of response." Estrella, a member of the Sweetwater Counseling and Guidance Association, says she works harder since the election to establish trust with students who have become fearful of sharing information with school staff. Across town at Lincoln High School, many students walked out the day after the election. History teacher Kiki Ochoa admired their willingness to take a stand and protest peacefully. Undocu- mented students living in the shadows who chose to walk out told him that for the very first time, they understood what freedom felt like. "Some said that they feel disenfran- chised, that democracy doesn't function for them," says Ochoa, an SDEA member. "But I want students to Students share their concerns about current events with educator Ramon Espinal. 47 January / February 2017

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