The Trump Effect

The Presidential election is having a terrible effect on schools. Minority children are terrified. A kindergarten Latino child, told by classmates he would be deported, asked every day “Is the wall here yet?” Bullies are empowered: some use the word Trump as they taunt or gang up on others. Teachers who normally use elections for lessons in democracy and the responsibility of citizenship find that the word “Trump” alone is enough to derail a class, and that the election inflames ethnic tension and the fear and anxiety of children of colour.

The need for teachers to be non-partisan stymies attempts to impart positive lessons about the electoral process. Every student from pre-schoolers up is aware of the rhetoric, tone and catch-phrases. “We’re going to build a wall”. Now the notorious phrases include “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”  The campaign is omnipresent, on social media and rolling news. Children talk about this whether or not the teachers take part. If a child says When Trump wins, you and your family will get sent back in the classroom, they say worse in the hallway. Students take the campaign intensely personally, and marginalised pupils bear the brunt of abuse.

Children worry about being sent back to where their parents or grandparents came from, and even the descendants of slaves fear being sent to Africa. They cannot feel safe with the level of hatred expressed in the news and even by trusted adults. Undocumented students have a right to education but come to school fearful that they will be interned, and separated from their families. Students from six to twelve cry in class. This reduces grades and ability to concentrate. One student can’t sleep at night, another has panic attacks. A Muslim teenager was suicidal after other pupils shouted slurs from their cars. Where the home country is unsafe, the fear is greater. Syrian children are traumatised again. Students with undocumented relatives think all the other students hate them. Even very young children use the N word as a slur. Students in majority black areas, with less interracial tension in the playground, still feel fear, and wonder if this is what all white people think of them.

Distrust grows as students recall lessons about American ideals, then wonder how someone who holds those ideals in such contempt could be so popular. America is a “Nation of immigrants” but immigrants feel unvalued. The usual rule is that a teacher will not discuss their own politics, but how to respond to a child who begs you not to vote for Trump because he will deport their parents? I have tried to reassure my students that no matter the outcome, they will be okay. I don’t even know if that’s true.

Teachers work to keep their classrooms respectful, so must remind students that there are different rules there from the debate stage. Bullies are emboldened, claiming they are just saying what everyone is thinking, using slurs, name-calling and inflammatory statements. Muslim students are called “ISIS”, “Terrorist” or “Bomber”. Kids tell other kids they will be deported forcibly. Even at an all-white school, “Dirty Mexican” became a common insult. Bullying affects health and can lead to self-harm. Bullies claim they are not bullying, but “telling it like it is”. Students have become very hostile to opposing points of view, regardless of the topic. Any division now elicits anger and personal attacks. Bullying, though, crosses party lines and “Trump” can be used as an insult, implying the victim is the type of person who would support him. Students are angry, and their anger can escalate into fist-fights.

Educators want a lively exchange of ideas in healthy debate. One of the goals of education is to teach students how to make persuasive arguments, support opinions with facts and listen to the perspectives of others. Those goals are out the window in many classrooms. Some teachers are enthusiastic about the opportunities to teach about media bias and fact-checking rather than gossip, but find it hard to find age-appropriate factual information. Teachers find teaching about the election “stokes the fires”. If it can get you suspended from high school, it is not appropriate in a candidate.

Being a good citizen of the US democracy is a main goal of schools, but children are disillusioned and disconnected. The rhetoric does not help their ability to use reason and evidence.

From the Southern Poverty Law Centre report The Trump Effect (pdf).

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