Skip to Content

Too Afraid to Come to School

Alabama’s new law divides students from their education and community.

By Dennis Van Roekel
October 7, 2011

A veteran kindergarten teacher in Alabama recently told me she is heartbroken. Parents are coming to her in tears, too afraid to come to school for fear of being apprehended. Most of her students were born in the U.S., but it makes no difference. Alabama’s new immigration law (HB 56) is driving immigrants and their children out of public schools and out of the state.

Almost 85 percent of this teacher’s students are Hispanic and their families are now living in an atmosphere of fear. She has lost four of 19 students in one week, and she worries her community will be a ghost town by this time next year.

Children are vanishing from Alabama’s classrooms. It's like a scene from some campy horror movie, but it’s all too real. The Associated Press reports that several districts with large immigrant enrollments – from small towns to large urban districts – have seen a sudden exodus of children of Hispanic parents, who told officials they were fleeing the state to avoid trouble with the law.

The right of undocumented immigrant children to a public education has long been protected. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of children to be educated regardless of their immigration status in Plyler v. Doe, (1982). Now this law shatters the tradition of public schools as a safe harbor by asking parents of newly enrolling students for proof of citizenship for their children. Parents are not required to provide such proof, but if they fail to do so, the student is presumed to be undocumented for reporting purposes.

The issue of illegal immigration always draws impassioned rhetoric from people on opposing sides. And Alabama is certainly not the only state struggling with this complex and divisive issue. Still, public schools don’t operate in a vacuum. HB 56 creates an aura of fear and oppression that impedes the mission of teaching and learning.

Children fear going to school or question the disappearance of classmates; parents fear sending their kids to school; and teachers and school personnel are unsure about what to make of the law. 

What’s needed here is an impassioned plea for common sense. Until then, NEA will oppose HB 56 with all of our legal might. We filed an amicus brief challenging the law, and we’ve joined with leading advocacy groups – the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama and the Southern Poverty Law Center – to bring much-needed attention to the immediate effects this law is having on Alabama’s public schools and the implications for students.

As president of an Association that prides itself in promoting justice and equality, I am deeply troubled by a law that fosters segregation, plain and simple. As a longtime educator, I am disturbed by the lessons this law teaches all children – documented or undocumented – about democracy, inclusion and non-discrimination. In terms of education, HB 56 is reminiscent of George Wallace in the schoolhouse door.

We cannot allow the gains our nation has made in fostering diversity and equality to be diminished by laws like HB 56. We're educators, and we’re about education. Any child who walks through the door is welcome.

Let’s do the math…

  • Some 2,000 Hispanic students did not show up to school on Oct. 3, according to state education officials.
  • That figure amounts to about 7 percent of Alabama’s Hispanic student population.
  • A coalition of organizations and individuals have filed suit in federal district court challenging the constitutionality of HB 56.  The coalition includes 11 civil rights groups, Hispanic rights organizations and labor unions, 12 named individuals, and 11 individuals whose names have not been disclosed for fear of retaliation or deportation.

Continue the conversation at


    NEA President on MSNBC

    NEA President on MSNBC
    Dennis Van Roekel tells a national audience about NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts with Me campaign.