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Arts School parents shocked by agency directive

Milwaukee Journal Sentinal | September 17, 2007

When students at Elm Creative Arts School unloaded their backpacks last week, parents sorted through a handful of forms to fill out: emergency contacts, medical history and school rules.

Then there was a plain-looking piece of pink paper - a directive from "Homeland Security" that said the federal agency was "requesting all Milwaukee Public Schools provide "citizenship information" for students in their building. The form asked for visa status, citizenship status, immigration number as well as other information.

That one-page form sparked concern among parents at the 550-student school on W. Walnut St. in Milwaukee. A copy of the letter was faxed to the P.I. Team.

When a reporter contacted the district on Friday, district officials said they didn't know anything about it, but looked into the situation and concluded that the form letter was a clerical mistake. The district later issued an apology to all parents and students.

Parents, such as Mark Silverman and his wife, were shocked the district had asked for such private and controversial information.

"We were angry because we thought of people who might be undocumented," he said. "We actually wrote a comment, 'You are not the INS.' "

Elm Creative Arts is a racially diverse K-5 elementary school. Students are predominantly African-American. Last year, Hispanic students made up about 5 percent of the student body.

In explaining the form sent to parents, school district officials said the letter was created by a secretary using a database template.

"It's regrettable," said Roseann St. Aubin, communications director for Milwaukee Public Schools. "We don't need the information. We don't want the information."

The district apology was sent by automated phone messages to all parents of Elm Creative Arts School students.

In part it said:

"The information was not requested under MPS district policy. We are in contact with our legal advisers in the city attorney's office for the proper means to remedy this situation."

A letter will follow in the mail, and the district is planning additional training for staff members who work with databases. St. Aubin said the district is also checking to see what they should do with forms already completed by parents and returned to the school.

St. Aubin explained how the mistake might have occurred:

About 140 district clerical staff attended a training meeting this summer, where they learned how to use database software. A template of the "Citizenship Information" form handed out at Elm Creative was used as an example during the meeting.

The form addressed to parents opened like this:

"Homeland Security is requesting all Milwaukee Public Schools to provide the following information on all the students in their building. Please fill out all the information requested below that applies to you as accurately as possible and return back to school by September 10, 2007."

St. Aubin said a school secretary drew up the form using the template. The secretary possibly created the form to collect information about the states students were born in. That information will be required by the Department of Public Instruction next fall, St. Aubin said.

But the mention of Homeland Security in the letter is still a mystery.

"We have received no request from Homeland Security," St. Aubin said. "We are looking into why that reference is there."

Silverman, whose daughter is in third grade at Elm Creative, appreciated the apology Friday but still wants answers.

"I would like to know a lot more about the Homeland Security connection," he said.

An interim principal at Elm Creative Arts declined to comment and referred questions to district officials.

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