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O'Neill schools offered sanctuary for immigrant families as ICE descended on town
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O'Neill schools offered sanctuary for immigrant families as ICE descended on town

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O’Neill Public Schools Superintendent Amy Shane's phone began to light up with texts at about 9:30 Wednesday morning — and she immediately got to work.

As word began to spread about raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a number of local businesses, school officials contacted people in the northeast Nebraska town’s Latino community and asked them to spread the word: The elementary school would be open for anyone who needed a sanctuary.

“We just wanted to make sure all of our students knew that school was a safe place, that school loved them regardless of their (immigration) status,” Shane said.

About 12 to 15 students showed up, most of them dropped off by parents who needed to find out what was happening with other family members. Others, she said, probably felt safer staying at home. Those who came were greeted by guidance counselors, teachers and other school staff who wanted to help.

“We definitely had more school personnel than we had children,” she said.

Bryan Corkle, a science teacher and wrestling coach who became an advocate for immigration reform eight years ago because he saw the struggles of his students, was at school preparing for the first day of classes when word of the raid spread. 

He began reaching out to families he knew would be affected, including some of his wrestlers, whose moms and dads were taken, and other students who had other relatives detained by ICE.

At some point, he saw a helicopter overhead, circling a business following the raid. He assumed authorities were looking for people who’d run.

“As I’m looking at that scene, at that moment, I thought to myself 'This isn’t the story. We’re a proud community of Irish immigrants that value our people ... we want our voices heard in this as well.'”

Over the next few hours, he and others organized a rally on the courthouse steps and 75 to 100 people showed up, he said.

Eight years ago, few people showed up to support one of Corkle’s wrestlers who walked from O’Neill to Lincoln to raise awareness about immigration issues. Today was different.

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“The supply has exceeded demand 100-fold. So many people want to help,” he said. “There is progress being made.”

About 17 percent of O’Neill Public Schools’ 830 students are Hispanic, and more than 7 percent were English Language Learners last year.

Shane estimated 60 to 80 families were affected by the raid, and school officials Wednesday were calling families to make sure all the kids were with adults.

Immigration officials said 133 workers in six Nebraska communities were detained.

Advocacy groups from Lexington and Grand island reached out and sent legal aid representatives, Shane said. She spoke to Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel and Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt.

The school will be open as long as people need it, Shane said. 

“We’re trying to be a clearinghouse for information for students and their families,” she said. “This is a horrifically traumatic event in a child’s life.”

Corkle said he sees the support of the community, but is tired of the inaction of Congress on immigration reform. 

“I’m so frustrated by our representatives in Washington, D.C.,” he said. 

“We can’t continue to wring our hands and kick our can down the road and speak harshly about following the law.” 

Elected officials had toured the raided tomato greenhouse plant to celebrate economic development, and Rep. Adrian Smith was just in town recently for a fundraiser, Corkle said.

“They need to come to O’Neill now,” he said. “Come back now when we need you.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist.


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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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