The Presidential election affects everyone’s lives, but this year it is having an unprecedented effect on the nation’s schools.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is an organization dedicated to fighting hatred and bigotry and seeking justice for vulnerable, persecuted members of our society. During the election, they surveyed and collected statements from educators about the disturbing effect the election has had (and is still having) on schools. While the survey did not refer to any candidates by name when asking about the effect that the election had had on their schools, 1,000 out of 5,000 total comments mentioned Donald Trump, in contrast to the less than 200 comments that mentioned Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton. This phenomenon caused the Center to dub the election-related wave of fear, anxiety, and bullying that has swept America’s schools as the “Trump Effect.”
Though a nonscientific survey, this study still revealed an alarming rise in fear and anxiety among minority students, especially those that are immigrants or have immigrants as part of their family, or Muslims (reported by 67% of teachers surveyed). These students have expressed to teachers their fears about the election, worrying about the possibility of deportation, having their families split, being put in jail or attacked by police, losing their homes, seeing their places of worship closed, and going into hiding and being sent to detention camps. Even for the students not in the minority, many still worry about the effect that the election is having on their friends and family. Some of these students are stressed and fearful enough to be crying in class, losing sleep, having panic attacks, and even experiencing suicidal thoughts. The effect the election has had on minority students isn’t just because of Trump’s actions. Minority students are also hurt by how many around them seem to agree with some of the hateful rhetoric spewed against them during the election. In a nation formed by immigrants and diverse religious beliefs, minority students are now dealing with the belief that their country doesn’t want them. After all, when President-elect Trump wins the election, minority students are “confused as to how a person who has no respect for American ideals can be so popular,” as one Boston teacher expressed in their comment.
Adding to these marginalized students’ troubles and fears are those students who have been emboldened by the attitudes and language used in the election to use slurs, as well as bigoted and inflammatory statements. In some schools, years of anti-bullying have been washed away in only a few months to give way to discrimination and hate. Emboldened students will often imitate the behavior of Trump and his surrogates, often targeting Muslims and immigrants, and point to Trump’s standards of behavior as an excuse for their own behavior. The election has become a part of the new bullying vocabulary. For example, kids will use support of Trump as a dis, or use insults and words commonly used in the election during bullying.
Even in schools where heightened levels of discrimination and bullying haven’t appeared, discussions about the election (and now, the results) are still tense. What were supposed to be calm discussions have devolved into shouting matches or even fist fights. A middle school teacher from Maine noted that “Students are quick to become accusatory and condemn others for having a different point of view.” Of course, educators aim to stop such battles while still allowing productive conversation about issues and having students learn persuasive arguments, and support opinions with facts and listen to the perspectives of others. In some classrooms, this goal has become impossible.
Obviously, when there is such a big impact at schools, it isn’t only the students that are affected. Teachers are feeling the effects too. When they were faced with the divisive and inflammatory forces of this year’s election, teachers had to choose between one of three general paths forward. Some carried on as normal, doing their best to treat it as a normal election year. Some are significantly changing their teaching style, either abandoning neutrality or focusing on specific parts of the election to avoid the backlash permeating other topics. Others (including 50% of elementary teachers surveyed) are avoiding the topic of the election altogether.
The teachers that chose to avoid the topic were worried about maintaining order, civility, and their objectivity. Some of them also worried about the possibility of parental complaints, crossing a directive from administrations that wanted to avoid the issue within their schools, or losing their job due to a failure to remain neutral about the candidates.
Though many of those teaching normally are struggling to avoid hateful rhetoric and make sure that students use factual sources when learning about the election, there are those that are actually excited by the way students are getting involved, saying that it is a great chance to educate them, especially about media bias and facts versus gossip. Still, many teachers were confused about how to appropriately teach about this unusually provocative election. When asked whether they would maintain neutrality or denounce rhetoric counter to their values, most teachers answered that they would abandon neutrality to be allies to their students and stay true to the values and morals of their schools.
In the wide view of how this election affects young people’s views on politics, the results are mixed. While students are taking more of an interest in politics than they have for years, students are also losing respect for the political process, in particular the electoral college, and the extreme rhetoric modeled in this election also makes teachers worry that students aren’t looking at a good model of the political process.
What’s Happening in Picture: Students in Merrillville, Indiana, chant “Build a wall!” while holding Pro-Trump signs at a basketball game against a mostly Latino team.
By Julia Poetzinger