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Middle school Issues Club tackles immigration, law enforcement

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By Lynn Burton
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Up to 45 eighth graders at a time have been staying late at Carbondale Middle School on Mondays to discuss social issues and will offer suggestions at a forum in Denver, and propose a resolution to the Carbondale Board of Trustees.

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The students are members of the school’s new Issues Club. Speakers so far have included a 9th Judicial District public attorney, a police officer, local mayor, and spokespeople from Planned Parenthood and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, among others.

Teachers Matthew Phelan and Grace de la Salas started the club. Phelan, who is in his first year as a social studies teacher at CMS, told The Sopris Sun that he and others started to notice an “atmosphere” at the school after last November’s presidential election.

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“Kids were kinda upset,” Phelan said. “It was difficult for them to process.”

Phelan and Salas started the club to give the students an outlet to listen, talk and research various issues in depth.

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Carbondale Middle School Principal Jennifer Lamont told The Sopris Sun, “A strategic priority at CMS is to build and maintain a positive school culture and community for our students and families. One of our outcomes is for students to develop respect for others. During middle school, students begin to recognize their individual challenges and privileges, and our Issues Club gives students an opportunity to understand diverse experiences and perspectives of their peers and community. Our hope is they learn from those around them and participate in a positive way with our broader community.”

About 20 Issues Club members will give a presentation at a Project Citizen forum in Denver on May 11. Project Citizen is a program for middle school and older students, and organizations and adult groups, that “promotes competent and responsible participation in local and state government,” according to the program’s website.

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The club’s 10-page powerpoint presentation – produced by “Vanessa, Keiry, Jessica and Cassidy” – is titled “Safe City Policy.”

The students’ recommendations begin with “Law enforcement officials … say the most dangerous fallout of changes in policy and of harsh statements on immigration is that fewer immigrants are willing to go to police.”

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The presentation continues by explaining one way of achieving the students’ goal is by making Carbondale a “safe city” (other options include a “safe harbor” and “sanctuary city.”)

The presentation cites the Roaring Fork School District’s nondiscrimination policy that calls for a “safe environment” where all are treated equally regardless of “race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, age, immigration status, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity, disability or need for special services.”

The Issue Club’s Plan of Action says the students will propose the plan in front of the town council, propose the town hire a community resource officer, and create an outreach program.

Some of the club’s observations and proposals revolve around an incident in 2009. “It’s had a lasting effect on the (Latino) community,” Phelan said.

That incident, according to Carbondale Police Chief, concerned allegations that a Carbondale police officer was also working for ICE (the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Homeland Security Department).

Schillings said he assigned the officer to work one day a week on an ICE gang-related taskforce.

Some Latinos alleged that the officer, among other things, asked Roaring Fork High School students for their immigration status.

“They (the accusations) were all false,” Schilling said.

The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition organized demonstrations against ICE and the Carbondale Police Department at the time.The officer, who resigned soon after CIRC publicized its allegations, later filed a lawsuit against CIRC over its actions. A member of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition did not respond to Sopris Sun questions as of press time this week.

The Issues Club expects to make its presentation to the town trustees at their work session on May 16. Their draft version of a resolution they plan to present to the trustees includes several “Whereas” preambles, such as:

“Whereas, the Town of Carbondale recognizes the importance of all the persons in the community, regardless of immigration status;

“Whereas, the Town of Carbondale seeks to clarify the town policy with respect to the immigrant community in town;

“Whereas, the immigrant community in the Town of Carbondale contributes to the social, educational and economic life of the town.”

“The kids have done a great job,” said Phelan. “There is a lot of passion here about a lot of issues. Being able to direct that passion into something real and productive has been one of the highlights of my time teaching, not just here, but anywhere.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on May 11, 2017. 
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