The very disturbing results of a survey* conducted by Teaching Tolerance of approximately 2000 K-12 teachers conducted during the spring of the 2016 Presidential campaign are certainly in evidence during the early months of the new administration.
- More than two-thirds of the teachers reported that students-mainly immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims-have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election. Close to one-third of the students in US classrooms are the children of immigrants! Unfortunately for far too many some of their worst fears have been realized.
- More than half have seen an increase in uncivil political discourse. This increase in uncivil political discourse continues to rise.
- More than 40 percent are hesitant to teach about the election.
- The survey did not identify any candidate in any way. Yet, out of 5000 total comments, more than 1000 mentioned Trump. Dozens of educators, nationwide, reported serious concerns for their students who daily expressed fears about “being sent back” or having their parents sent back. In Washington state, a teacher shared her concerns about a 10 year old student who can’t sleep at night for fear of his parents being sent away. Teachers from second grade school to high school report that students are crying in class.
In a very sobering monograph based on the survey, The Trump Effect: The impact of the presidential campaign on our nation’s schools, Maureen B. Costello writes “A consistent theme from teachers across grade levels was that their students understood that the behavior on display isn’t okay. Middle school students on New York’s Long Island are confused as to how certain campaigns have been allowed to promote racism, violence and hate.”
A middle school teacher in Pampa, Texas where 50 percent of the school population is Hispanic reported that, “The word ‘Trump’ is enough to derail a class.” A fifth-grade teacher in Queens wrote about a fistfight on the playground when one of her students quoted Donald Trump.
From Florida to Washington state, from California to Maine educators report the serious impact the primary campaign has had in their classrooms. They can be read by downloading the report on splcenter.org.
What teachers described as “slurs and negative comments repeatedly directed at particular students or groups of students” aimed to hurt is essentially the definition of bullying. In recent years, parents and educators have devoted a tremendous amount of effort to banish bullying behavior, to create bully free zones, and provide a safe environment for students. Modeling and teaching respect and kindness have been successful in many schools with the support of state and federal programs. In other schools educators report that years of anti-bullying work has been “undone” during the last few months.
The serious consequences of bullying was shared by another Washington state teacher who reported that after fellow students had repeatedly shouted slurs from their cars at one Muslim teen-ager, the girl expressed suicidal thoughts. A Yale University study reported that bullied students are 7-9 percent more likely to commit suicide than non-bullied students. Just a few years ago a teen-ager in the Boston area did commit suicide when classmates repeatedly shouted slurs from their cars.
We must also remember the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the talented violinist “who came out” before his freshman year at Rutgers University and was cyber-bullied by his roommate. The pain inflicted was so great that Tyler committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
It is important for us to regain the progress made in our fight against bullying. Our teachers want to be able to use future presidential campaigns, as they have every presidential election in the past, as an opportunity to teach their students about democracy, government, the electoral process, civil discourse, and the responsibilities of citizenship.
They want to see a return of civil political discourse in their classrooms. Most important, they want to see classrooms where kindness and respect prevail.