The sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl at Rockville High School, in Rockville, Maryland, has shaken the nation. Her assault on school property, during the regular school day, by two students aged 17 and 18, has raised questions about Loudoun’s school safety, and if what happened there can happen here.
To further complicate the matter, the two students who allegedly assaulted the girl entered the country illegally, fueling a conversation about illegal immigration in conjunction with school safety.
Loudoun County School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) is at the forefront of this conversation in Loudoun. DeKenipp appeared on the WMAL radio’s Larry O’Connor show March 21 and was interviewed in Western Free Press on March 26, where he said he believes the county should better scrutinize undocumented students to keep other students safe.
According to DeKenipp, students who are immigrants can stay in public schools longer than students who are citizens, and can be enrolled as freshmen even when they are 17 or 18. Because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), LCPS cannot disclose or collect citizenship or Visa status information on prospective students, DeKenipp said.
School districts cannot pass along citizenship status information to immigration officials, and since immigrant populations often do not know English, they qualify for the LCPS English Language Lerner (ELL) program, they can stay in public schools until they are 22 years old. DeKenipp believes this is an example of federal overreach and poses a problem for school systems.
There are 51 students over the age of 18 enrolled in LCPS. Of those, 49 are from the ELL population, DeKenipp said.
“Just last year, Montgomery County denied 63 requests from ICE to turn in illegal, alien criminals. Had they turned in these illegal, alien criminals, one of them could very well have been one of the students that raped this young lady,” DeKenipp said on the radio Show.
Public schools use a wide variety of resources to keep students safe. LCPS uses 8,000 cameras and key card access infrastructure to support a safe environment for staff, students and visitors, LCPS Public Information Officer Wayde Byard said. All middle and high schools have a school resource officers (SRO’s) who are members of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office or Leesburg Police Department. SRO’s also have elementary schools they cover and be called there when needed. In addition to SRO’s, each high school also has a civilian safety and security specialist.
“In cases where areas do not have cameras, SRO’s and security staff are appropriately deployed to monitor student flow, particularly near rest rooms and other areas of vulnerability,” Byard said. “While violence can happen anywhere, LCPS works to encourage active school participation in the reporting of incidents through the participation in ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ initiative. ”
Early identification and intervention also assist in stopping violence before it occurs, Byard said. Student accountability is at the teacher level, however the dynamic nature of most schools make it difficult to impossible to always account for students who are not in class. However, when classes are in session, staff patrol all areas of school where security needs to be addressed, he said.
However, DeKenipp feels more can be done and the school board can be more proactive by doing things like including school safety in the Vision 20/20 plan. He would also like to see after hours access to school facilities better monitored.
Students who are deemed as threats to fellow students and teachers or are identified as “at-risk” attend alternative school, Douglass School. As the ELL population continues to grow — growing 30.2 percent as opposed to the 3.5 percent enrollment growth in the general student population — DeKenipp said school districts should look into acclimation programs for students who are immigrants, potentially in a separate facility like an alternative school.
“I believe strongly that until regulation at the Federal and local levels catch up to real world issues (e.g. Rockville HS), acclimation programs for undocumented students are a must,” DeKenipp said on his Facebook page.
The Minority Student Achievement Advisory Council (MSAAC) Executive Board denounced DeKenipp’s comments at the March 28 school board meeting. MSAAC said that it is appalled to hear of the assault and that the persons responsible must be held accountable.
However the community must be careful about how it interprets the details of this crime so it doesn’t create a means to justify treating a group of people differently based on a specific identity. A March 15 study by the CATO Institute found that immigrants — and even immigrants who came to the country illegally — are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.
“Studies show that individuals who make quick judgements will judge a person based on what they already believe about their category as opposed to fairly assessing all of the facts. This is precisely why comments made by (DeKenipp) in an article published on March 26 by Western Free Press are particularly disturbing,” MSAAC said in its statement. “Acts of crime committed against anyone by anyone should not be tolerated; neither should cultural or racial profiling, nor the segregation of any class or ethnic group be acceptable.”
MSAAC also said DeKenipp’s comments suggesting separate facilities for students who immigrated illegally as an acclimation program are reminiscent of educational segregation, which violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
“Mr. DeKenipp’s ethnocentric comments were perceived as stereotypical, prejudicial and imply that there is a preferred or superior culture,” MSAAC said. “MSAAC is opposed to Mr. DeKenipp’s recent statements as they perpetuate an exclusive culture in Loudoun County, subjecting all students to an environment that is further racially charged, unsafe and in opposition of an inclusive, supportive and encouraging learning environment.”
However, DeKenipp doesn’t see an acclimation program as exclusive. He believes this issue goes beyond sexual assault. Gangs like MS-13 recruit at middle and high schools and ELL students who don’t know anyone in the area, barely speak the language and don’t know American customs could be particularly vulnerable, DeKenipp said.
“Wouldn’t it make sense for us to take undocumented students under our wing and show them the right way instead of letting MS-13 show them their way,” DeKenipp said. “And that’s what I’m proposing. I’m proposing a program to help these students that we know nothing about, help them meet people, help them learn the language, help them understand U.S. laws, our culture and what’s expected of them in Loudoun County Public Schools.”
He sees an acclimation program as an extension of already existing programs for rising high school freshmen, like Link Crew at Potomac Falls High School.
DeKenipp attempted to create a new business item at the March 28 board meeting to instruct staff to look into enrollment requirements for immigrant students — particularly those who may have entered the country illegally. However, according to board bylaws, the board first has to vote on whether they wish to add the new business item before hearing rationale or discussion around it.
The board voted 6-3 against hearing the new business, with Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), Tom Marshall (Leesburg) and DeKenipp voting in favor. There were no board comments scheduled for the end of the meeting, so DeKenipp was unable to speak to his motion.
DeKenipp can bring the issue up during committee, but it could takes months before the topic comes up for public discussion, he said. In the meantime, he hopes to continue engaging with constituents through his Facebook page.
“As long as I have constituents who have concerns, I’m going to represent them,” DeKenipp said.