Tommy Chang takes ‘unusual step’ to refute lawsuit’s deportation claims

"BPS would never give student information to ICE, unless required under law," Chang wrote.

Dorchester-01/24/18  Boston School Superintendent Tommy Chang visited the Sarah Greenwood School.  He kneels to talk to a K2 Spanish class student. JohnTlumacki/The Boston Globe(metro)
Boston School Superintendent Tommy Chang visited the Sarah Greenwood School in Dorchester in January. –JohnTlumacki / The Boston Globe

Outgoing Boston Public Schools superintendent Tommy Chang is taking what he calls an “unusual step” during his last week at the helm of the system.

In a public letter Monday, Chang refuted a lawsuit filed last week by civil rights and student advocacy groups against him, Boston Public Schools, and the City of Boston, alleging that the district shared information with federal immigration officials that helped to lead to the detainment and deportation of an East Boston High School student. The lawsuit aims to force the district to disclose if and how often it shares student information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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“That claim is false,” Chang wrote. “BPS would never give student information to ICE, unless required under law.”

Chang announced Friday that he agreed to step down from his position amid reports of a lack of support from Mayor Marty Walsh and growing discord with parents. Chang’s resignation came one day after the lawsuit was filed, accusing the district of establishing a potential “school-to-deportation pipeline.”

“I’m taking the unusual step of speaking on a lawsuit we have not officially received yet because I want you to know how strongly we, as an organization, and I personally, as an educator and an immigrant, feel about protecting immigrant children,” Chang wrote.

As The Boston Globe noted, school officials are prohibited by federal law from asking students about their immigration status, and most keep personal information about students confidential. BPS does not request or keep records on the immigration status of its students, Chang wrote:

… Furthermore, unless ordered to do so by statute or a court of law, BPS does not provide law enforcement authorities with copies of any students records, which are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Even if a law enforcement agency was to show up at a school with a warrant, only the BPS Office of Legal Advisor will determine whether BPS is required to respond or comply.

According to the lawsuit filed last week, information from an incident report written by East Boston High School police about an attempted fight was included as evidence by ICE in the deportation proceedings of the student. The incident report made unspecified assertions that the student had MS-13 gang connections, which the lawsuits’ plaintiffs dispute.

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Specific to that student, Chang wrote that BPS officials complied with requests from a team of investigators from the Boston police, Massachusetts State Police, and “other law enforcement agencies” who were investigating gang-related murders in East Boston. According to the Globe, the team included ICE officials. Chang said the information the district provided, which included “relevant school police reports,” did not contain any student or individual immigration information.

Chang said the idea the district would give such information to ICE “fundamentally contradicts what we stand for and believe as an organization.” As a Taiwanese immigrant who came to the United States as a 6-year-old, Chang said the issue was also “enormously personal to me.”

“Immigrants make this nation strong, and like so many people, I’m horrified by some of the actions our federal government is taking, particularly against immigrant families, actions that I believe are fundamentally contradictory to what this country stands for,” he wrote.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, maintained Monday afternoon that the the city, school district, and police department have failed to explain how and why the records were shared. The group has repeatedly submitted public records requests for the information, which have been denied by the city.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the committee’s executive director, said in a statement that even though Chang was one of the defendants named in the suit, they primarily took issue with the city’s refusal to comply with their request.

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“To be clear, we asked for public records, not an ouster,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.