Although lightly attended due to many members of the community visiting schools and meeting new teachers Thursday, a variety of important discussions took place at the community forum.
The forum focused on community issues, addressed by representatives of Sunnyside’s city government, the Police Department, Nuestra Casa, School District, League of Education Voters and Latino Community Fund.
Michaela Razo of the community fund opened the forum, stating it was important to find out what the needs of the community are, and to try and meet those needs.
“The idea of the forum is to establish dialogue,” she said before presenting the first question to Nuestra Casa Director Caty Padilla-Johnson.
Padilla-Johnson explained what her organization does to educate people regarding their rights when confronted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
“We offer training,” she said, noting people are not obligated to open the door if agents are at their homes.
The agents can be told they do not have permission to enter, and people can call the local Police Department, asking for an officer to come verify the people at the door are actually ICE agents.
“It’s important to know your rights,” Padilla-Johnson said.
The agents also need a warrant, and there are advocates who can verify if a document is truly a warrant or just an official piece of paper filled out by agents, she said.
Those people can verify if the agents are conducting a raid or looking for a specific individual, Padilla-Johnson said, adding individuals have a right to remain silent and request an attorney, as well.
Ruvine Jimenez of the League of Education Voters chimed in, emphasizing the importance of verifying the identities of those claiming to be ICE agents, “… because there are scams.”
Police Chief Al Escalera spoke to the subject, stating his department does not have immigration enforcement authority.
Officers with the local department will not arrest individuals based on their documentation status, he said.
“We are doing everything to open the doors,” Officer Melissa Rodriguez said, noting the Police Department has at least one Spanish speaker on every shift.
She said it is imperative victims speak and cooperate with police so a crime can be prosecuted.
To that end, Rodriguez said it is also important people in the community understand the police do not work for immigration.
The issue of education was covered by the next two questions.
Community members present said they weren’t fully aware if there were after-school programs available to students that provided activities not involving sports.
One community member said student grades decline when sports are the only activities available, and she worried children not involved in after-school activities have the opportunity to be on the streets.
Another said she is pleased with the schools but would like to see a program, like Boys and Girls Club in Sunnyside, providing more opportunities for younger children.
The discussion turned to issues of mental health among the youngsters, given there is a problem with a high suicide rate among the high school population.
Jimenez said the state is closing both Eastern and Western Washington state mental hospitals.
The funds will be released, and a senator is pushing to funnel them to education, she said.
Rodriguez would like some of the funding focused on providing a mental health professional in the schools.
Superintendent Kevin McKay said the School District has hired a professional to work at the high school this year.
“It’s the largest and potentially the neediest,” he said.
Ideally, McKay would like a mental health professional on every campus within the district because counselors don’t have the proper training to handle the need.
“There aren’t a lot of people around with that ability,” he noted, saying most mental health professionals work in the private sector.
Turning the conversation to school safety, McKay fielded the next question.
He said the school has been working diligently in planning and coordinating efforts with law enforcement and other agencies to address safety.
The day after school let out, the district and several partnering agencies staged an active shooter drill to determine what safeguards are effective and if there were improvements in the safety plans needed.
“School safety in the district is complex,” McKay said, noting there are several different systems in place.
“When we don’t know all the information, it’s very hard to communicate out to the public,” he said, explaining there are times when an outside agency, like the Police Department, requests a lock-out due to an active situation outside the schools.
To further assist people, McKay said there is now an app that can be accessed on the district’s website for anonymously reporting suspicious activity.
Padilla-Johnson said it is important to say something when one sees something suspicious, whether it involves the schools or the outside community.
That means letting school officials know if it is something at school and letting the police know if it is elsewhere.
The forum continued in much the same way, and those present hoped a future forum might be better attended.