Harlingen teachers and families express worry about school district’s partnership with DPS

Harlingen CISD announced a decision to partner with the Department of Public Safety to have troopers throughout their 30 campuses. The partnership, however, is being criticized by some teachers, parents, and students who say decision made without consideration for the negative consequences that may play out from granting DPS inside access to schools.

Jules, a Harlingen high school teacher who asked to remain a confidential source for fear of repercussion, told Neta that neither students nor teachers were consulted on the decision. They learned about the decision via an email with a letter attachment announcing the established partnership.

Although Jules learned about the decision a day before the district gave a local news station an interview to publicize the partnership, the letter indicates that the decision had been in consideration for some time.

“After the tragic events at Santa Fe High School earlier this year,” the letter reads, “Governor Greg Abbott met with superintendents, administrators, and law enforcement officials to discuss possible improvements to the physical safety of Texas schools…The overall theme of the day was the importance of schools partnering with local law enforcement to plan for emergency situations.”

The Santa Fe High School shooting took place on May 18. Ten students died that day as a result of the actions of their classmate, Dimitrios Pagourtzis. The school had both armed officers and active shooter drills.

“A parent may walk in and see a DPS officer eating lunch with our students, and so they see the DPS officers in a different light,” Shane Strubhart, public relations director for Harlingen CISD, told KGBT 4, a Sinclair-owned station. “It also brings awareness to the DPS officers about what’s going on.”

Jules was surprised by the news. “I was in shock and, because I’m already afraid of the police that are on campus, I felt further afraid that anytime I go to campus they might find a reason to hassle me…[and] the students,” Jules said. The teacher explained that they have been subjected to “more than the typical” police encounters in the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s always been very adversarial.”

Jules said many students expressed worry about DPS troopers presence on campus, and some said “they would feel less safe.” Students whose families are undocumented said they would be afraid to be dropped off “if DPS was outside.”

Even before Texas Senate Bill 4, a law that allows police officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest, many community members had already heard of cases where people stopped for minor infractions were turned into Border Patrol or ICE. SB 4 is also known as the “Show Me Your Papers” law.

Last December, in a piece titled “They’re taking everybody,” The Intercept showed Rio Grande Valley residents who themselves or whose loved ones had been deported after a routine interaction with a DPS State Trooper.

In an email, Strubhart told Neta that the school district “communicated our new partnership to all of our HCISD parents through a letter sent home last week.” He did not provide details on what the input process has been but insisted that “the response we have received has been overwhelmingly positive.”

When asked specifically about community concerns regarding the impact DPS presence might have on undocumented students or students of mixed immigration status, Strubhart said that “HCISD has several established partnerships with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies…Our students and parents are accustomed to seeing law enforcement personnel at our schools and at our events as part of our continued efforts to strengthen the bonds between the school community and law enforcement.”

Strubart did not directly specify what, if any, protections would be in place to protect students and families coming into interaction with DPS. He pressed that the “focus of the governor’s initiative” centers on safety, “not on the immigration status of students and their families.”

Jules said they have seen police “arresting the kids and manhandling them” before. They have seen multiple police officers frisking a single person, placing students in handcuffs, and police doing the perp walk with them. Even though they are “physically tiny,” Jules said these children “get treated like adults.”

Maria, who asked for only her first name to be published, is the mother of three children enrolled in a Harlingen elementary school. She learned about the decision via a letter sent home with her children. Although she worries about the safety of children enrolled at her children’s elementary because of heavy traffic and speeding drivers, she says she’s not concerned with security inside the schools. She’s seen teachers coordinate amongst themselves when it’s time to escort children to their parents.

“Todo a estado muy bien…no habido ninguna clase de problema o cosas grave,” she said. “Everything has been great…there haven’t been any type of problems or grave issues.”

With this partnership, however, she worries that students who might become involved in a “problema menor” (“minor problem”) could face overly harsh consequences with DPS on campus.

Maria’s worry is an issue civil rights activists refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In a report about the origin and consequences of school policing, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that when “adolescent behaviors are criminalized, students in policed schools may find themselves at greater risk of entanglement with the criminal justice system merely by virtue of attending school.”

The report provides harrowing examples of the over-criminalization of teenager behavior by Texas police, including the incident in which one student was arrested for “disorderly conduct” for using profanity. During the arrest, the student was struck 18 times. The report also details the disproportionate effect which school policing has on low-income students of color.

Maria thinks concerns over DPS and people’s immigration status should not be ignored. She said it’s common knowledge that DPS frequently turns people over to Border Patrol and that you don’t always need to commit an error for them to have an excuse to stop you. She says that “en cualquier rato, en cualquier falta” (“in whatever situation, whatever mistake”), a DPS run-in can lead to being detained by immigration agents. Because of this, she worries undocumented parents “ya ni en la escuela se van a sentir seguros porque si van a tener miedo” (“won’t even feel safe in school anymore because they will be afraid”).

Christina Patiño Houle, the network weaver of the Equal Voice Network (EVN), also chastised the district’s decision.

“It is inevitable that the youth who will suffer most from the militarization of our schools will be those who are already the most vulnerable and marginalized: low income, Latino and African-American, mixed-status families,” she said. Noting the precarious situation of undocumented students, she emphasized that “all youth, regardless of immigration status have the right to attend school.”

Patiño Houle was also critical of the manner in which the decision appeared to be handled.

“The community was not asked about this change; they were informed of it,” she said. “It is critical that public hearings and community meetings are held to discuss this change in school policy and how it will implement communities.” Maria and Jules agreed.

The partnership with DPS commenced this week. Parents, teachers, and students still have questions about the way Harlingen CISD approached the partnership.

Last April, a high school student in Houston arrested for participating in a school fight was turned over to ICE by police.