A report issued in April titled, “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools,” said that the primary campaign was so divisive that it was having a “profoundly negative effect on children and classrooms.” The report, by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teacher Tolerance project said:
It’s producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported.
Other students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.
Since the report was issued, concerns about many things that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said about women, Muslims, Mexicans and other people have only heightened, and teachers increasingly find themselves handling the fallout.
In this post, Mica Pollock, a professor of education at the University of California at San Diego, looks at the effect that she calls “Trump Talk” has on students, teachers and school climate, and discusses how educators should respond.
Pollock is the author of several books on race talk in schools, including the forthcoming “Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About — and To — Students Every Day.” An anthropologist and design researcher, she is professor of education studies and director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) at the University of California at San Diego. As director of the center, Pollock works with colleagues to network the university’s people, resources and opportunities to the diverse K-12 educators, students, and families of the San Diego region, with the particular goal of supporting low-income, underrepresented students toward college and rewarding careers.
By Mica Pollock
Children and youth hear the words adults hear. They hear them on the Internet, over a shoulder and repeated by other kids on the playground or in the classroom. And words matter. They shape what young people think about themselves, each other, adults and their country.
From Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, young people have heard distorting claims about Mexicans as rapists to deport and distrust, of Muslims as violent anti-Americans who should be banned from entry to the United States, of African Americans as people living in hellish inner cities, of women as people to grope without permission, and of violence toward critics as admirable passion, to name just a few examples.
Such comments echo through school hallways, too.
Anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim “chalking” occurred last spring on college campuses nationwide. On my own campus in California, several self-proclaimed “Tritons for Trump” chalked anti-Mexican graffiti on the ground right before an event designed to attract admitted students. Vandals up the coast scrawled pro-Trump messages and “Black Lives Suck” on high school bathrooms and benches.
And the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project issued a report several months ago about the “Trump Effect” — the impact of Trump’s campaign talk on K-12 students nationally. Teachers reported that children and youth across the country were hearing Trump’s language on the news and restated in the mouths of peers. The report documents Latino, African American, and Muslim children, and children of immigrants, terrified and fighting with peers; reporting slurs and threats from peers that Trump would hurt or kill their families; and asking teachers whether their entire families (even as American citizens) would be deported, walled off or worse by Trump.
The National Education Association has been sharing teachers’ stories of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and bullying talk on the rise as students cite and extend Trump’s rhetoric. Fall incidents include homemade “white pride” Trump T-shirts at high school homecoming; increasing incidents of Muslim students bullied on buses and in classrooms; and even explicit “Nazi” talk among students. And students are now hearing Trump supporters threaten armed rebellion if he doesn’t win.
“Trump Talk” has unleashed a wave of explicit hate and intimidation for educators to address. And to have a presidential candidate unleash such talk — especially without reproach from many powerful politicians — sets an extremely confusing example.
That’s because schools are places where hate speech, harassment and encouragement of violence are supposed to be challenged.
In schools, students are taught not to bully other people. And there are actual laws saying schools can’t just let hateful and violent speech go. As a professor colleague put it, “Trump speech on public campuses creates a very real tension between the civil liberty of speech and the civil right not to be intimidated.”
Civil-rights lawyer friends have clarified for me that any campus receiving federal funds has to debate a key issue in the era of Trump. When does speech — even speech protected under the First Amendment — produce a hostile environment, prohibited by federal and state civil-rights laws? Such laws forbid educators in federally funded public schools from tolerating or allowing an education environment in which harassment based on race, color or national origin (or sex, or disability) is “sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school.”
Because a school “has a duty to provide a nondiscriminatory environment that is conducive to learning,” when hostile environments are impeding the right to learn, educators must take action to “end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring.”
To prevent racially hostile environments, experts suggest, proactive educators respond to all incidents of racially hostile speech or reports of racially harassing conduct; they continually ask speakers to respect and value others so all can learn. Most powerfully, educators know that hostile speech that doesn’t “rise to the level” of harassment or a hostile environment in legal terms can prompt discussion about when words distort or harm other people, or condone violence. Indeed, educators’ primary antidote to racial hostility is ongoing speech: routinely fostering thoughtful discussion about the facts about complex social issues, the value and real experiences of other people, and the consequences of our claims.
As educators, we cannot and should not censor talk about Trump, nor censor debate about any issue he raises, such as immigration policy. Schools must foster dialogue on controversial issues, not squelch it. And we can’t simply outlaw “offensive” speech from our schools, because freedom of speech protects us all. But as educators, we are also fundamentally responsible for denouncing speech that denigrates or threatens people — and for protecting all students’ rights to participate in and benefit from school.
The complexity of Trump’s own hostile speech is that he explicitly denigrates groups of people only some of the time, and then he just implies or denies the hate previously stated. Others then harass critics anonymously on his behalf or even just scrawl his name to intimidate children.
But because Trump Talk in many mouths has embodied, urged, and catalyzed hate and violence, many students across the country are afraid. You could say a hostile environment has developed nationally — one that might last long past the election.
Now more than ever, teachers and students have to actively reject hate talk and bullying in order to create learning environments that let us all debate complex political positions without denigrating entire populations.
Together, educators and students can proactively learn to “attack” the thing said, not the speaker, by asking people for the evidence behind their claims and offering evidence behind our own. Together, we can consider when our words misrepresent or disrespect others. Together, we can seek accurate information about social issues and learn about other people’s actual experiences and perspectives. We can refuse intimidation talk and insist instead on engaging ideas. And together, we can consider when we’re fully informed or have more to learn.
As the Teaching Tolerance report noted, what many teachers said they most needed to handle Trump-era dialogue in their classrooms was “facts.”
This is the line we walk as educators and students. This is not political correctness. This is training young people to participate civilly and nonviolently in democracy. This is about debating complicated issues using evidence. This is about basic respect.
Hate and intimidation are not welcomed in the hallways, classrooms, and playgrounds of our nation’s schools. Teachers and kids don’t have to accept them from the Republican nominee.