Former RI Teacher of the Year Kristin Hayes-Leite on answering the call to aid detained immigrant children at the border.

Answering the Call

By Kristin Hayes-Leite, 2018 RI Teacher of the Year

Last spring the nation was horrified by the images and stories of young immigrant children being separated from their families and held in cages after they entered the U.S. seeking asylum and refuge. The sounds of crying children and anguished parents struck at our hearts. The resounding public outcry led to a shift in the Trump administration's stated policies and most of us, myself included, assumed the situation had improved and that children rights would be protected.

But the situation has not improved. Even though the administration was forced to change its policy, there are still children suffering direct harm and neglect while in the custody of the U.S. government. Indeed, a recent Inspector General's report from the Department of Health and Human Services stated there may be thousands more children involved in these separations than originally thought. Currently there are over 10,500 children being held by the U.S government in shelters and detention centers. One such site soon to be doubling in size is located in Homestead, Florida. Because it is on federal property, it is not subject to state licensing, inspections, or education regulations. Many children there are being held well beyond the 20 days allowed in emergency cases by the Flores settlement. This treatment is a violation of human rights and is intolerable.

As teachers, we are mandated to report abuse and neglect - it is our moral and legal obligation to take action to protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of society. As teachers, we see firsthand the effects that trauma and extreme stress have on our students' ability to learn. So when Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, asked our cohort of state teachers of the year to join her in speaking out, I answered the call.

I wanted to ignore it. It was several weeks before Christmas when her email arrived. I was busy trying keep my head above water with piles of schoolwork, family obligations, and preparations for the holiday. But these pressing concerns fell away when I took the time to really think about those young people, the same age as the students I teach, being held in detention centers - separated from family, with little to no schooling provided, and no idea what would happen next. Each year I teach my 9th grade students about empathy, global citizenship, and our role in upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If I did not employ those lessons and speak up for these children, what message would I be sending to my students?

On Sunday February 17th, teachers from across the nation will be holding a Teach-In For Freedom to demand an end to the criminalization of immigrant children and families. NEA members Amy Mullen, Mick Lefort, and Kathy Couchon will join me in representing Rhode Island. As proud union members, we will stand for children and demand that our government uphold the law and stop traumatizing children by taking them from their families and holding them well beyond legal the legal limits in large institutional facilities like the one in Homestead, Florida.

So now I am asking you to answer the call. While we cannot all fly to Texas, Rhode Island educators can make and share videos to support the Teach-In For Freedom, contribute to a book drive for these children, contact legislators or teach a lesson on immigration rights in your own classroom. As NEARI members, together we can stand strong for children everywhere and fulfill our roles as teachers, protectors, and citizens. Find out more at


Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General Brief.

HHS OIG: Many Children Separated from Parents, Guardians Before Ms. L. v. Ice Court Order and Some Separations Continue
January 17, 2019

Jordan, Miriam. “Trump Administration to Nearly Double Size of Detention Center for Migrant Teenagers.” New York Times. Jan. 15, 2019

Teachers Against Child Detention.

Read more from Kristin: A Shared Sense of Purpose and Passion