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“My students are frustrated with the racism and prejudice that is emerging from the presidential campaign. They are scared of what will happen and they feel helpless.”
Think kids aren’t paying attention to the 2016 presidential campaign? Think again. A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows teachers are struggling to talk about the election with their students--many of whom are actively picking up on the anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric flying from this season’s Republican presidential candidates.
The Center’s report is based on a survey done by its education arm, Teaching Tolerance. The survey was sent out via Teaching Tolerance’s email list and social media channels at the end of March, and asked teachers to weigh in on how they saw the presidential campaign impacting their classrooms.
Within a week, 2,000 teachers responded to the survey, telling stories about how their students were absorbing not only the candidates’ messages, but also the media coverage of those messages. The overarching impact is stark, according to the Center, whose report notes that the campaign is “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.”
And, of course, one candidate in particular is seeping into classroom and playground interactions, and the report’s name —”The Trump Effect”—says it all. While Republican candidate Donald Trump’s bombastic presence and reputation for “telling it like it is” might make good fodder for the 24-hour media cycle, students as young as kindergarten or first grade are worrying over what would happen if Trump got elected.
One survey respondent put it this way:
“The election cycle has become more than a joke. My immigrant students, illegal and legal, are asking questions that tell me they are scared. The Republican rhetoric about walls and ‘keeping them out’ is frightening.”
Beyond the convoluted Trump plan to build a bigger wall between the United States and Mexico is the very real fear, for many students, that they are about to be deported.
Teachers also report hearing and seeing students mimic the fear and hate-filled rhetoric of the 2016 campaign, as if it has given them a free pass to, like Trump, “speak their truth.” One teacher has seen an “increase in hate symbols worn by student and parents to school,” while another noted that the angry rhetoric of the campaign has given students the idea that they can “interrupt, insult, accuse, and generally disregard facts,” just like the candidates on TV.
It is clear from the survey that xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant biases lurk just under the surface in American culture. But results from the survey, which asked teachers to describe how the election was impacting their classroom and school communities how they are handling it, also indicate that a lot of smart kids, teachers and administrators are trying to forge a constructive path through the 2016 election.
Take a look:
I teach in a school that is 80 percent-plus Muslim. The student population is remarkably mature about the political discussions in the media. In fact, they're more mature than most of the candidates.
As a principal I am trying to develop guidelines, but I need help. I feel very strongly that we need to respect different opinions, but that the platform and policies put forth by Donald Trump, for example, are in conflict with the very mission of school and I am wondering if I can use that as a guideline or way to discuss the issue with my teachers.
I teach at Tribal school (high school) and the kids all believe Trump would take away federal aid to their families if he were elected. They're the first to point out the ways he's like the fascists they're studying. They're great!
SPLC's report adds statistical weight to anecdotal evidence that the Trump Effect is particularly toxic to schoolchildren. Recently in Wisconsin, a girls soccer team made up of mostly black and Latina players had to flee the field after Trump fans at the game yelled, “Build that wall," and, "Speak English!” At a high school basketball game in Indiana, white students in the stands taunted the rival team's Latino members with signs of Trump and chants of, "Build that wall."
Questions about public education—how to fund it, who should run it, why it might need protection--have largely been off the table for this year’s presidential candidates. But that doesn’t mean the election itself is not barging into classrooms and consciences all over the United States. To get a sense of the impact this is having on kids, teachers and entire school communities, take a few minutes to read through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new report.
Sarah Lahm is the Progressive Education Northcentral Regional Fellow and a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She is the winner of a 2014 Nation Institute Investigate Fund grant, and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com