Since 2019, I’ve worked with students in the metro Detroit area to advocate for sanctuary schools through an organization called MIStudentsDream. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of sanctuary schools, the broad understanding is that they are a set of policies to support and protect immigrant and undocumented students and their families.
One day while working with MIStudents Dream, one of the youth organizers, a student from a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in Detroit, exclaimed:
“Immigrant students shouldn’t have to feel scared or unwelcome in school. That’s not ok. Immigrants are scared in many places, but school shouldn’t have to be one of them.”
This important insight has echoed in my mind over the years, and it raises serious questions about the role schools play in supporting students’ mental health. Although immigration issues are specific to the community where I’ve spent most of my teaching career, every community has its own injustices from environmental racism to rural poverty and gun violence, and all of these issues have a deleterious impact on students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that schools need more mental health counselors, but what about when trauma occurs in schools? Better yet, what happens when schools exacerbate existing trauma for students?
MIStudentsDream’s youth-led sanctuary schools campaign sheds light on how schools need to address their own policies and practices to create safer, more supportive environments for students. In addition to hiring more counselors, this should be seen as a necessary investment in students’ mental health.
The Call for Counselors
In my home state of Michigan, we have a 671 to 1 counselor to student ratio, despite the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of a 250-1 ratio.
Of course, the lack of mental health support in schools predates the pandemic, but because of the obvious mental health toll the pandemic caused on students, coupled with the influx of federal dollars into school districts, the chorus grew louder. The message was loud and clear: our students are struggling, and we need more school counselors.
Through my experiences as a classroom teacher and a youth organizer, I know students who lost family members during the pandemic, students who struggled with food insecurity and students whose anxiety and depression spiraled during the fear and isolation of the pandemic’s onset. These students carried those outside stressors into the classroom when in-person schooling resumed.
However, when it comes to sources of mental health struggles, schools themselves are not blameless. As trauma-informed education expert Alex Shevrin Venet points out in her recent book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education:
When we position investment in counselors as the sole solution to addressing student trauma and mental health issues, we absolve schools of their active role in causing harm and trauma and disregard the responsibility schools have to create healthier, more supportive environments.
For example, early in my teaching career, during a get-to-know-you activity at the start of the year, I had a student share with tentative confidence that they use they/them pronouns. I remember simply replying, “Cool, thanks for letting me know!” and watching them smile with a sense of relief. However, a few months into the school year, they shared how students were often separated into boys and girls in gym class. Because this student was more reserved, they felt like they had two choices: follow the instructions and harm their own sense of identity, or refuse to follow the instructions and risk getting into trouble.
In this instance, like so many others in school, a counselor would be helpful for the student to process this trauma, but preventing the trauma from occurring in the first place through things like inclusive gender practices and professional development around gender identity would be more impactful.
Alternatively, Detroit’s youth-led sanctuary schools campaign is a powerful example of what it can look like for schools to take responsibility for supporting students’ mental health.
Youth-Led Sanctuary Schools Campaign
Immigrant communities in Michigan face unique challenges. As a neighbor to Canada, all of Michigan is considered a “100-mile zone” terrority, meaning Customs and Border Protection can conduct vehicle searches without a warrant. Additionally, after 2008, undocumented people in Michigan were no longer able to obtain a driver’s license.
Given the reality that simply driving kids to school is a source of fear for undocumented parents and students in Michigan, what role do schools need to play in supporting students who enter the building with already heightened anxiety?
In 2019, Detroit Public Schools Community District officially declared themselves a Sanctuary District, a testament to parent organizing and advocacy in the city. This declaration set forth a series of internal policies to protect undocumented students in the district.
Youth organizers in MIStudentsDream were encouraged by this policy, but they immediately had one major concern: What about charter schools? In Detroit, almost half of the student population attends a charter school. Without sanctuary policies reaching charter schools, a significant portion of the immigrant student population would be left without the same level of protection.
Youth organizers wanted to change this so they launched a sanctuary schools campaign that focused on advocating for charter schools to adopt similar policies with a clear understanding that sanctuary policies would improve immigrant students’ mental health in schools.
Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of a sanctuary school, much less a whole district. Because there is no singular definition of a sanctuary school, the youth organizers developed their own. According to their definition, all schools in a sanctuary district must:
- Have no cooperation with Immigration & Customs Enforcement or Customs (ICE) & Border Patrol (CBP) agents;
- Update all school forms & policies to be immigrant-friendly;
- Train teachers and staff on how to support immigrant and undocumented students;
- Implement police-free schools; and
- Make their sanctuary school policy public to students, families and community members.
It is worth acknowledging that school districts are not responsible for the federal and state level policies that target, discriminate, and criminalize immigrant communities. However, school districts are responsible for the environment and community they cultivate in their buildings, and they have the ability to mitigate the impact that immigration has on students in school.
If the only approach schools took to address this crisis was hiring more counselors, they would ignore what these Detroit youth organizers are highlighting: the underlying policies and practices in schools that exacerbate the fear and anxiety immigrant students experience in schools.
Schools Have to Work on Themselves
When I started therapy in 2020, I quickly learned that simply attending therapy sessions wasn’t enough to improve my mental health. My sessions were important, but I had to put in the work in my day-to-day life to really improve my mental health.
A similar lesson applies to schools. Districts cannot simply bring in more mental health counselors and expect their students’ mental health to automatically improve without simultaneously creating internal policies and practices that support students’ mental health and mitigate the harm that occurs in schools.
Teachers, myself included, often feel like they have to go against the school system in order to support their students. Like so many of my colleagues and friends, I have had to push back against White-centric curriculum to create projects and units that are culturally relevant. I have allowed my students to break the dress code to feel more comfortable in their skin. I have advocated for gender-inclusive language so that my students who are nonbinary don’t feel invisible. These small acts of resistance are only necessary because of the reality that schools can be harmful spaces.
Because of this, I have so much gratitude for MIStudentsDream for insisting that schools take an active role in supporting their mental health and safety. Their powerful and impactful organizing and advocacy speak to the leadership capacity of young people, and their demands highlight an important truth: schools need to work on themselves.