Creating an Ethic of Community: How School Leaders Make Decisions Related to Immigration Policy

Emily Crawford-Rossi is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Her recent report "The Ethic of Community and Incorporating Immigrant Concerns into Ethical School Leadership" provides an in-depth case study of how a school in Northern California responded to nearby immigration enforcement activity in 2008 and provides a thought-provoking discussion of what role school leaders have in addressing these issues and maintaining a safe learning environment for students. It was featured in Education Week in May of 2017.

In this Q&A with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Crawford-Rossi describes the situation she studied and the implications of what she learned in current discussions and schools and immigration.

What is your current position and professional background, and your research questions of interest?

I am an assistant professor in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Prior to graduate school and becoming a professor, I spent two years in Japan teaching English to middle school students. The questions that drive my research center around the intersections of immigration policy, ethical decision making, and how educators think about ensuring undocumented students in K-12 have full educational access, such as the following:

  • Do educators have policy knowledge about the Plyler v. Doe (1982) decision, which states undocumented students are to have education like any other child?
  • Do they know if their districts or local school has a policy in place about what to do if Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) is near the school or is in the community — and families are scared to send their children to school? 
  • How do educators think through the ethics of making decisions to do their best by students?

Moving forward, I plan to explore these kind of questions across more rural, suburban, and urban contexts.

Would you provide a brief summary of the scenario that this report studied?

In 2008, an elementary school leader and school personnel heard rumors that ICE vans were parked about two blocks from the school. After this, the school leader, Linda, put the school into an unofficial lockdown, where teachers closed their doors and turned their lights off while she figured out what was happening. Linda learned from the district's legal office that she wasn't to do anything as it related to ICE (who were not on school property).

However, she could choose to call families to let them know ICE was in the vicinity, and tell families they could send an alternative to school that day to pick up children. Linda had a school counselor and teachers help make these calls. Later that day, the mayor and some political figures showed up at the school to decry ICE being nearby, intimating that ICE agents knew they were close to the school — though Linda and most of the participants didn't agree ICE purposefully operated nearby. Linda and her resource office concentrated on keeping students calm and reassuring them. They also made sure no one could enter the school without their knowledge.

At the end of the day, some families were late to pick up their children up from school that day, so personnel put a movie on for these students in the auditorium. The school returned back to its normal in the following days, and Linda sent out a letter to families to clarify ICE hadn't been on school grounds. She and a community organizer also arranged a community meeting in the school's cafeteria so families could meet with immigration lawyers to ask questions and to learn about their rights.

What were the key research questions you wanted to ask?

Linda and other educators had been aware that the school had undocumented students and family members in their school community.  However, legal status had never been salient; participants felt their job was to educate every child who came to their school. I was interested in learning how school personnel, especially the principal, Linda, thought about their community as they made decisions in responding to ICE. Specifically, how did they think about their undocumented community members, potentially navigating sensitivities around legal status and families' fears of ICE? How did Linda and others demonstrate an "ethic of community" in this context involving ICE?

Why was the question of school leadership so central to your focus?

School leaders play such an important role developing a sense of a welcoming climate and sense of belonging at school. Leaders are also big role models for all the other educators and personnel in a school, setting the mission and tone for how students and families are treated. I also focused on school leadership as there is not much research yet out on how K-12 school leaders interact with undocumented students and mixed-status families.

What do we know about how ICE activity near a school or in a community impacts both students and parents? Are there differences between short-term and long-term impacts on families?

Research in this area shows that there can be both short-term effects in that students may feel very stressed and have difficulty concentrating on academic work, and fear separation from family members. Some families have kept children out of school if they perceive ICE is in the area. I have not yet seen research on the long-term impacts on children due to ICE activity. The Urban Institute has published excellent reports on the impact of immigration raids on children in the wake of immigration enforcement.

What lessons do you think school leaders can learn from how the principal responded to the situation?

One key lesson that stands out is that the leader had established the community’s trust in her long before the incident with ICE occurred, and this included community members of varying legal status. My impression is that Linda was very intentional in finding ways to partner with the community and make the school a space welcome to all. A few examples: she was open to growing a community garden on the property; she helped hire someone into the role of "community liaison", and she opened up the school library for parent's use, too! Further, a community organizer would come to the school and lead a variety of information sessions, etc.

Who were some of the other school personnel that had an important role in this situation?

The other personnel were definitely important in the overall school response. It seemed like the participants worked so well as a team. However, the school resource officer and school counselor stand out as being two personnel that Linda relied on heavily. There was also a 5th grade teacher who helped her students call their families as they were scared for them. This teacher also drove several students home.

What is an "ethic of community" and how does it apply to this situation?

Great question. Scholars from the field of educational leadership have posited frameworks to help school leaders think through their decision-making processes when confronted with an ethical dilemma, and to do so in a way that's in the best interests of the students. The frameworks include paradigms, or an "ethic" to help leaders be consider various aspects of an issue, like what do the standards for the profession expect? What are leaders' personal ethical codes? What is just and fair? Dr. Gail Furman posited the need for leaders to consider an "ethic of community," which means leaders think about their community members' values and wants, and incorporate it into their decision-making processes. Together, leaders and the community jointly determine the moral direction of the school. Since Furman's conceptualization, there has been academic conversation about whether an "ethic of community" is a standalone paradigm, or already part of another as an aspect of decision making.

Scholars Jacqueline Stefkovich and Joan Poliner Shapiro cautioned that community has the potential to unduly influence leaders' decision making processes; they also asserted that consideration of the impact of decisions on the community was already included in other paradigms. What I was interested in with the study was how a leader conceptualizes and defines who is part of community in an ethical dilemma where legal status is made salient, and how does this make an impact on her decisions.

What connections do you see between what you learned through your research and current discussions about schools and immigration enforcement?

The research I conducted in 2011 was based on an incident from 2008, but it is relevant to our current climate around immigration policy and how undocumented students and mixed-status families are treated. We are being forced to think carefully about how we value other human beings, and their life experiences and stories — and about policy that does or does not show these values. I think there's often an assumption that if there's a policy, that this policy is ethical. Policy can be crafted with good intent and in a way that's equitable for people from different backgrounds, but the implementation and application of policy may be uneven. Also, laws and policies can be plainly unjust, unethical, and then change. History is replete with examples (e.g., Jim Crow laws). So, in public schools, how are we valuing and including families of varying linguistic, religious, and cultural backgrounds in practice? Those with different legal status? Educators (and the public) need to be able to distinguish between what’s political and what's ethical in thinking about who has voice and opportunities to raise their voices in school communities.

What is your advice to administrators who are still trying to figure out the best approach to this challenge for their school or district in the current climate?

I don't have any short answers to this question. I think reading deeply and broadly, across the political spectrum, to see how a highly politicized issue is being talked about is increasingly important. We, myself included, also have so much to learn from history and how policy has created and shaped cycles of immigration that has often allowed for the exploitation of undocumented immigrants. I also think academics, leaders, and community members need to converse more about these kind of issues and figure out the research-to-practice connections. There are some excellent resources, like those from the Pew Hispanic Research Center, that show how undocumented immigration to the U.S. has declined or reached parity with outflows in recent years. Some of these reports are counter to current anti-immigrant rhetoric.

I hope that my research is useful, practically speaking, of course, and the opportunity to speak with Colorín Colorado is exciting! We academics need to do better in seeking out additional outlets for research to reach the public and counter narratives that perpetuate stereotypes of immigrants and other often-historically marginalized populations. For me, it's becoming a moral imperative.

What kinds of training, guidance, and information do administrators need? Who is best prepared to provide that guidance?

There is a variety of helpful resources available to help inform school leaders and educators at every level, and more and more resources are readily available and easy to find.  The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have guidelines for school districts. School leaders and others may benefit from more policy training (e.g., what are the procedures they are expected to follow if ICE is near the school or wants to come onto school property? Who at the district-level should be contacted for legal advice?) and knowledge about the Plyer v. Doe (1982) decision. Working through case study examples or doing role playing of hypothetical scenarios may also be useful. Counselors, social workers, and teachers are often best acquainted with undocumented students and families' sensitive situations — but how can they coordinate with other personnel at the school to make sure all students feel safe and protected at school? I list a few resources at the end of the article that may be helpful, though it’s not an exhaustive list.

Which community members and partners should be part of school’s approach to address parents’ questions and concerns?

I think the most important thing given today's political climate around immigration is to find people at the school and in the community who are well-trusted by community members without legal status. This could range for school leaders, teachers, and counselors like in my study, to community organizers, to leaders and members of faith-based institutions.

Do you have any guidance for increasing the knowledge base of staff throughout the district regarding issues or concerns of immigrant and refugee students?

Becoming acquainted with guidelines around how schools can avoid creating a "chilled climate" at the school that would lead to undocumented students staying away from school would be a great start. The resources I listed earlier may also be useful, and Pew Research Center has reports on trends in immigration to the U.S. that provide powerful counterfactual evidence that flies in the face of erroneous and damaging political rhetoric.  A lot of cities and school boards have passed resolutions in support of undocumented students and community members — there are some great examples to draw from.

What's really important to keep the knowledge base growing is doing simple but critical things like taking stock of how diverse the literature is in a school's library. For example:

  • Who is represented in stories, whose history is portrayed, and in what ways?
  • How does school curriculum infuse diverse perspectives, especially those from historically marginalized backgrounds?
  • If a school is not culturally diverse, how can educators and students get more exposure, perhaps through technology, guest speakers, and programs that make inclusivity a priority?

Educators work hard, are extremely busy, and juggle a host of responsibilities. There need to be multiple ways of getting information to educators and people in all roles at a school. It's hard to keep up with the news these days, so consistently talking through these issues or providing spaces for discussion, and scheduling trainings or workshops might help ensure student and family concerns don't fall by the wayside and school personnel feel prepared and knowledgeable.

What surprised you in this research?

I was slightly surprised that after the 2008 incident with ICE coming within blocks of the school, the school leaders and personnel didn't have a clear plan in place for what to do should ICE come near the school again. Some research participants assumed they would do the same thing they had in the past, but Linda, the principal, told me she might slightly change what she would do, like not necessarily call for a lockdown. I also learned that the local school board of education had passed a resolution stating support for undocumented students and community members, but no participants were aware of the resolution. I am only speculating, but there were so many other day-to-day, routine things going on at the school that participants were focused on other things, understandably. Immigration policy was a hot issue at the time I conducted the research in 2011, but today the tenor of the debate over immigration policy is really fervent. From my read of news sources, academic articles, and in hearing anecdotal stories, undocumented immigrants are scared about the plans and promises the current president is making around immigration issues.

What kinds of research would you like to see around this issue or broader issues?

In addition to the questions I mentioned at the beginning there are a few other key areas of interest for me; for example, there's a lot of research on undocumented high school students and whether they can gain access to in-state tuition rates. However, there is a lot more research needed at the K-12 level and how educators in a range of different roles think about their professional and ethical obligations toward undocumented students and students from mixed-status families. Perhaps more longitudinal studies, too, and studies that educators find more ways to partner with immigrant communities and advocate for students’ educational rights.

Recommended Resources

Capps, R., Castañeda, R.M., Chaudry, A. & Santos, R. (2007). “Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children.” The Urban Institute for the National Council of La Raza.

Chaudry, A., Capps, R., Pedroza, J., Castañeda, R., Santos, R., & Scott, M. (2010). Facing our future: Children in the aftermath of immigration enforcement. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Crawford, E.R., & Hairston, S.L. (2017). He Could Be Undocumented: Striving to be Sensitive to Student Documentation Status in a Rural Community. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership. Advance Online publication. DOI: 

National Association of Secondary School Principals Position Statement on Undocumented Students.

Plyler v. Doe. 457 U.S. 202 (1982)  “Supporting Students from Immigrant Families.”

U.S. Department of Education. (2015, October 20). Resource Guide: Supporting Undocumented Youth. Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education. (2014).“Joint ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter. Retrieved from  *This gives guidelines concerning enrollment practices and not producing a “chilled” school climate that makes undocumented children or families avoid school.

About the Author

Emily R. Crawford is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Her most recent work has appeared in Educational Administration Quarterly, Urban Education, the Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, and Educational Policy. Her research agenda includes looking at issues related to immigration in public schools and communities, how school leaders respond to ethical dilemmas, and the impact of immigration policy on K-12 undocumented students.


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