An Oxford Area School District board member who called for a district policy on homeless students to use the phrase “illegal immigrants” and blamed declining test scores on “those people” is drawing backlash and calls for her resignation.

As of early Tuesday evening, more than 18,000 people had signed an online petition featuring video of Jennifer Kehs’ remarks during a Jan. 18 school board meeting and demanding her immediate resignation. Alumni of the southern Chester County district condemned the comments in a letter they plan to present during a board meeting next week, and advocacy groups also voiced concern.

“Such xenophobic and racist comments from board members of a public school are offensive and completely unacceptable,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for children who are homeless and English learners, among other students. “Statements blaming immigrant students for bad school outcomes are simply false and make families feel unwelcome and afraid to attend school.”

Andrew Goretsky, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia branch, said the group was “deeply troubled by the anti-immigrant remarks that were made during this school board meeting. No human being is or should ever be referred to as ‘illegal.’”

Kehs, who was elected to the school board as a Republican in November, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

During the January board meeting, Kehs began asking questions as the board took up a revision to a policy about homeless students.

“These students that are being discussed, are they illegal immigrants?” she said. The district’s superintendent, David Woods, informed Kehs that the district — like others in Pennsylvania — is not allowed to ask about a student’s immigration status. Federal law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent prohibit public schools from denying enrollment based on whether a student is in the country legally or not.

Kehs continued, saying that “we should call out, rather than calling homeless students, we should call them illegal immigrants, or include the two terms within this policy. We should say homeless students and illegal immigrants.” Woods said he “wouldn’t recommend that.”

“I think it’s important we share with the community this policy will, in fact, include illegal immigrants,” Kehs said. She then began talking about the district’s academic standing, holding up what she said was a chart showing declining rankings.

“If we’re going to have a policy around illegal immigrants, the other thing I was thinking is we can separate it completely from these homeless people. Sorry, homeless students,” she said. “I think we should really take into consideration what we put in a policy that applies to illegal immigrants, because those people may potentially continue on this downward trend, as we have people coming into our school district who don’t speak any English, who have no schooling in America.”

Another board member questioned Kehs’ conclusion. “How do you know that’s not coming from a cohort of socioeconomically disadvantaged” students? “You’re just making that assumption.”

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The district enrolls about 3,300 students, 34% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged. More than 60% of students are white, and 32% are Hispanic. Just over 10% are English learners.

As Kehs asserted that the district was “now going to be accepting I don’t know how many numbers of illegal immigrants,” board president Joseph Tighe interrupted: “I don’t know that we’re allowed to say that,” again noting the prohibition on asking a student’s legal status.

“If we are accepting those people, those will very much drive down numbers on our scores,” Kehs said. She then questioned how the district could be sure it was educating immigrant children and not adults.

The district posted video of the meeting online a week later, which is when Shelley Meadowcroft saw it. A friend had reached out to her and said, “‘Watch the whole thing, pay attention to the end, and tell me if you’re upset or I’m overthinking this,’” Meadowcroft said Tuesday. “I watched it and started to shake in anger.”

A former township supervisor who has a child in kindergarten in the district, Meadowcroft said she created the online petition because she felt the community should know what Kehs had said.

“Often statements like this that are made in small communities at low-attended meetings get glazed over, and they shouldn’t be,” she said. The petition garnered wider attention after “it hit TikTok last night and blew up” — going from 3,000 signatures Monday night to nearly 9,500 when Meadowcroft woke up Tuesday.

Elizabeth Darling, a 2008 graduate of Oxford Area High School, helped organize a letter by alumni that objected to Kehs’ “unfounded, racist claims” and said that it was “far easier to blame a marginalized group of people, and set the anger of the community at them, rather than address the real problems in the district.” The letter cited an analysis commissioned by plaintiffs suing the state over school funding that identified Oxford as having a funding shortfall of more than $7,000 per student.

Darling, who now lives in Tennessee, said 250 alumni from different years had signed onto the letter. Kehs “doesn’t represent the views of Oxford,” she said.

Kehs lives with her husband and five children in Upper Oxford Township, has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Penn State, and works full time in clinical research, according to the district’s website.

Kehs said during her campaign that she was “very much against” critical race theory, according to a video posted by a group called Back2BasicsPA that supported Kehs and three other Republican board candidates.

In that video, Kehs objected to “allowing people who have racial differences to go kind of at the head of the line” and said that “kids who are doing very well or work really hard, they should be the ones getting the scholarships or getting the rewards.”