Metro

Chang, BPS sued over secrecy surrounding student information sharing with ICE

Superintendent Tommy Chang.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff /file
Superintendent Tommy Chang.

Several civil rights and student advocacy organizations, alarmed that a school incident report helped lead to a student’s deportation, filed a lawsuit Thursday against Superintendent Tommy Chang after Boston school officials repeatedly refused to disclose how often they give student information to federal immigration authorities.

The groups, which include the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, have tried unsuccessfully for several months to find out how frequently the school system shares student information with federal authorities, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“As federal deportation efforts intensify, the question of how and under what circumstances public schools are providing information to the US Department of Homeland Security [and] Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become even more crucial,” the suit said. “The threats to students and their families are real.”

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School officials declined to comment on the merits of the case Thursday afternoon.

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“Neither the City of Boston nor Boston Public Schools have been served with the lawsuit,” Dan O’Brien, a school spokesman, said in a statement. “Boston Public Schools will review the lawsuit once it is received.”

The school system’s apparent refusal to share information about the practice comes after Chang and Mayor Martin J. Walsh have repeatedly attempted to reassure students in public statements and visits to schools after President Trump’s election that all students and their families would be welcome in the school system regardless of their immigration status.

School systems under federal law are barred from asking students about their immigration status and in most cases are supposed to keep personal information about students confidential. Chang has said the school system would never share student information, even with law enforcement, unless required by a court order.

Yet the groups contend the Boston school system has potentially developed a “school to deportation pipeline.”

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“We have a right to know which students are being sent to ICE when they should be sent to the principal’s office,” said Matt Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee. “We need to know why this is happening and the extent to which it is happening.”

Joining the Lawyers’ Committee in filing the lawsuit is the Center for Law and Education Inc., Kids in Need of Defense, and Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc.

The suit, which is being handled by Jonathan Albano of the Boston law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius, also names as defendants the school system, the Boston School Police, and the City of Boston. Albano also regularly represents The Boston Globe in First Amendment matters.

The lawsuit stems from the deportation of a student from East Boston High School. Evidence used by federal officials in his deportation proceedings included information from a school incident report generated prior to his arrest.

The student, while at East Boston High School, had been involved in a confrontation with another student, but it never became physical because school employees stepped in.

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School police, however, wrote up an incident report, which the groups say included unsubstantiated allegations of gang involvement. School police subsequently shared that information with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, a network of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that includes officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The student was held in custody for more than 16 months before being deported, according to the groups.

East Boston High has been of particular interest to federal immigration officials. It is one of several area high schools where teenagers in recent years have been recruited by the international street gang known as MS-13, federal law authorities have said. The gang, which federal authorities have said was involved with at least five murders in Greater Boston in recent years, was the subject of a sweeping federal raid in January 2016 that resulted in 56 arrests in the Boston area.

The lawsuit does not say when the student was taken into custody. But an attorney representing the student told WBUR in January that he has no ties to gang activity and came to the United States from El Salvador in 2014 at the age of 17. She added that his green card was pending when ICE arrested him.

The groups have been trying since last December to gain information about the school system’s sharing of information with law enforcement. They filed a request under the state’s public records law at that time seeking from the school system the number of Boston police incident reports that have been shared with the regional intelligence center for each of its 125 schools over the last three years and copies of each of the associated reports.

In January, school officials rejected the request for the number of reports that have been shared with law enforcement, claiming “the city is not in possession of any such records, lists or databases.” Officials also would not share any copies of the incident reports, refusing to say whether the documents actually existed.

But in February the secretary of state’s office, which oversees enforcement of the public records law, faulted school officials for not adequately explaining why they could not conduct a search of electronic files to determine the number of incidents that have been shared with federal enforcement and why they could not release redacted versions of the reports.

A month later, school officials rejected the records request again, arguing they do not electronically track whether a report has been shared with the regional intelligence center and consequently could not tally up any numbers or identify any reports.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.