After election day, the Trump effect: the impact of the 2016 presidential election on our nation’s schools

| April 10, 2017 | 0 Comments


In the first days after the 2016 American presidential election,1 the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Teaching Tolerance (TT) project2 administered an online survey to kindergarten–Grade 12 educators from across the country.

The discussion in this report summarises responses to those questions. TT3 was founded in 1991 and is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for America’s children. The presidential election was held on 8 November 2016, TT’s informal online survey launched on 14 November 2016; the data reported here is based on the responses as of 23 November 2016. A link to the survey was sent to educators who subscribe to the TT newsletter and was also shared on TT’s social media sites.

It was open to any educator who wanted to participate. Several other groups, including Facing History and Ourselves,4 Teaching for Change,5 Not in Our Schools,6 the American Federation of Teachers7 and Rethinking Schools,8 also shared the survey link with their audiences. In the course of just over a week, over 10 000 people responded to the survey. Collectively, they submitted over 25 000 comments. Nearly all respondents identified themselves by name, e-mail address, grade level and state. More than 1 500 signified a willingness to go on record by giving permission for TT to share their contact information with the media. The results of this survey are not scientific.

The respondents were not selected in a manner to ensure a representative sample; those who responded may have been more likely to perceive problems than those who did not. But it is the largest collection of educator responses that has been collected; the tremendous number of responses as well as the overwhelming confirmation of what has been anecdotally reported in the media cannot be ignored or dismissed. The election of Donald Trump is having a major impact on American schools, but how students are affected – and how educators are addressing the impact – depends largely on demographics.

American schools are increasingly segregated along racial, ethnic and economic lines. Although individual experiences will vary, looking at the proportion of students who are African American, Hispanic and white is a generally dependable indicator of what each school is experiencing, regardless of where it is located. We found that how a school reacted ultimately depended on whether it is a white-majority school, a “minority-majority” school, or a diverse school with no single group in the majority. This is a generalisation, of course, and there are exceptions, which we discuss later.

Overall, our public schools in the US serve mainly lowincome students of colour. But students are not evenly distributed among schools. Here are a few important facts:

• total number of public schools: 98 454

• percentage of students who are from low-income families: 51

• percentage of students who are Hispanic: 25

• percentage of students who are African-American: 16

• percentage of students who are students of colour: 50

• percentage of schools that are 70% or more minority: 26

• percentage of schools that are 70% or more white: 42

• percentage of schools with less than 70% of one racial group: 32.

Targeting and racial bias

The increase in targeting and harassment that began before the election has, according to the teachers we surveyed, skyrocketed. It was most frequently reported by educators in schools with a majority of white students. The behaviour is directed against immigrants, Muslims, girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students, kids with disabilities and anyone who was on the “wrong” side of the election. It ranges from frightening displays of white power to remarks that are passed off as “jokes”.

Here’s a small sampling of the thousands of stories teachers told us that illustrate post-election targeting: “Since the election, every single secondary school in our district has had issues with racist, xenophobic or misogynistic comments cropping up. In the week since the election, I have personally had to deal with the following issues: (1) White students telling their friends who are Hispanic or of colour that their parents are going to be deported and that they would be thrown out of school; (2) White students going up to students of colour who are total strangers and hurling racial remarks at them, such as, ‘Trump is going [to] throw you back over the wall, you know?’ or ‘We can’t wait until you and the other brownies are gone’; (3) The use of the n-word by white students in my class and in the hallway. Never directed towards a student of colour (that I’ve been told yet), but still being casually used in conversation.” –Middle school teacher, Indiana “I’ve had a lot of students repeat the phrase ‘Trump that bitch’ in my class, and make jokes about Hispanic students ‘going back to Mexico’.” – High school teacher, Georgia “The day after the election I had a group of Hispanic girls in my homeroom targeted by a boy who told them Trump was going to deport their families.” – High school teacher, New Jersey “Seventh-grade white boys yelling, ‘Heil Trump!’ Many stories about bigotry have happened outside of school.” – High school teacher, Colorado “Someone anonymously put a swastika with the Trump tagline ‘Make America Great Again’ on the desk of a Spanish teacher.” – High school teacher, California

The new majority: Trauma and fear Speaking broadly, the survey results indicate that schools with significant numbers of African-American and Hispanic students and immigrant students of colour are experiencing what many teachers named as trauma, with all its attendant consequences. The fear comes in many forms: worries about deportation, family separation, and general anxiety and hopelessness about the future. Teachers observed that children who are fearful and anxious are unable to concentrate and have a harder time keeping up at school. The biggest fear of all comes from immigrants: nearly 1 000 teachers specifically named “deportation” or family separation as a concern among students. Given Trump’s promises to deport millions of people here illegally and the uncertainty about what actual policies may ensue, teachers are ill-equipped to address these fears.

Here is a sampling of what fear looks like in schools: “A kindergartener asked me, ‘Why did the bully win?’ Other kids who have been awarded student of the month and considered great examples for our school hid in a classroom after school and drew Pokémon fireballs attacking the man. This is a serious issue that we have not clearly addressed. We need help and we must claim our districts and other districts ‘sanctuary districts’.” – Elementary school teacher, Arizona

“Our students are really worried about being deported, some Muslim girls are coming to school without their hijabs, and kids have told me they are afraid that a war is going to happen. One child asked me, ‘How are we going to get our freedom back?’” – Elementary school principal, Michigan

“Students have been emotionally distraught, especially the day after the election. Many came to school sobbing, fearing for their future and their families, worried about their relatives being deported. Many expressed sadness that they didn’t realize how messed up the country was until that day, and that they either hated America or now understood why their friends said they hated America.” –Middle school teacher, New Jersey

“Most of my students come from Hispanic backgrounds. Many of their parents came to the states illegally. We also have some Muslim students. Many of them were crying and so scared the day after Trump won. They are thinking of future plans just in case. My Muslim students wondered why America didn’t like them. It’s been tough and emotionally exhausting.” –Middle school teacher, Pennsylvania

“Multiracial children were telling Hispanic children they were going back to Mexico and their parents were first. Fifth-grade boys were fighting in the bathroom because they found out who voted for Trump in the mock election at school. A lesbian student’s mother was telling her that life as we knew it was over, and she was quite distraught about her mother. Children are very worried about being deported or killed.” – Elementary counsellor, Illinois

The trauma students are experiencing is putting a strain on school counselling and social work resources and leading teachers to spend more time away from instruction so they can provide emotional support. For some, student distrust of a majority-white teaching force may loom as a new issue. More than one educator commented that her “students believe that white teachers voted for Trump”. It’s impossible to know how long added support will be needed or when trust will be restored.

Increased tension, less community

Finally, in any school that is diverse, especially those with no group in the majority, teachers report that students are tense, have lost trust in each other and are struggling to get along.

The divisions opened by the election run deep in these schools. Here are some stories that show the division, tension and loss of trust: “The day after the election, I broke up a fight in the locker room because of differing opinions around each student’s choice for president.” – High school teacher, Illinois

“‘You voted for Trump. I hate you,’ said one third-grader to another.” – Elementary teacher, Washington

“I teach in a primarily white, upper middle-class school that largely supports Trump. Unfortunately, there have been divisions between students since Trump’s win. My African-American students are refusing to work with the white students who supported Trump. Students are no longer looking at each other as people, but are looking at them as who their parents supported. It is no longer about issues, but about hate and fear and disagreement and all the things we work our tails off to teach our students to be careful and wary of. My heart is breaking. And it was especially broken when the 12-year-old white male student saw an x on another white male student’s paper and said to him, ‘Here, let me help you,’ and proceeded to draw a swastika on his paper. And our admin is telling us NOT to talk about it.” –Middle school teacher, Georgia

“We had a race-related fight at a school function in September. My Mexican- American students have been catching comments from kids at school and in the community about being deported, etc. We also had one student post a pro- Trump/anti-black meme that went to 600 other kids’ Instagram feeds. (The words he used are not printable here.)” – High school teacher, New York

Some exceptions A very small minority of teachers reported little impact of the election on their schools. These schools tended to fall into two broad groups. The first group includes schools that are overwhelmingly white, especially in areas with few immigrants or African-Americans.

These students are isolated, with little exposure to students who are frightened by the election results, and few opportunities to see the world from their perspective. Teachers at these schools report that their students have accepted (or welcomed) the results and have moved on. The second group includes schools that have worked hard at establishing inclusive welcoming communities, have response programmes in place, and nurtured qualities of empathy and compassion among students.

Many of them report that students are affected, but that they have the language and practices – talking circles, student-led groups, leadership clubs, character programmes and proactive staff – that have helped them avoid conflict. “We are keeping a careful, careful watch as teachers and administrators,” noted a North Carolina educator. “We are in solidarity as we seek to see that every child in our school knows his/her value and importance in our community.” A high school teacher in California reported, “The students were devastated by the election results, as were most of our faculty and staff members. However, the darkness of the election brought us all closer together and in a positive and proactive way!”

Other schools are feeling the pressure, though. A Maryland high school teacher said, “We have worked really hard over the last 10 years to change our climate. The last year has nearly undone all of that work. It is disheartening.”

The ugliness is new

Many teachers made a point of saying that what is happening now is something new. It’s not, they explained, a different response to an election result, but an unleashing of a spirit of hatred they had not seen before. Here are some of their comments: “I have seen open racism, spoken, for the first time in 23 years of teaching.” –Middle school teacher, Michigan

“Words that I have not heard in the past – racist, bigot, pussy, slut – are now used by my fourth-graders.” – Elementary teacher, Minnesota

“This is my 21st year of teaching. This is the first time I’ve had a student call another student the ‘n’ word. This incident occurred the day after a conference with the offender’s mother. During the conference, the mother made her support of Trump known and expressed her hope that ‘the blacks’ would soon ‘know their place again’.” – Elementary teacher, Georgia

Clearly, this election is having an effect on students, but teachers are affected as well. “Teachers are struggling. We are facing division like we’ve never seen before. People are rethinking relationships and opinions of colleagues. Personally, I am wondering if teaching Arthur Miller’s The Crucible9 might bring me grief. I’ve never even considered such a thought in 20+ years of teaching!” – High school teacher, Iowa

Recommendations A few days before the election, we posted advice to help teachers navigate the day after election day. We knew that, no matter the result, some kids would be crushed and others would be jubilant. We also knew that, after a campaign as ugly as this one, teachers would be like medics on the front lines. A week later, we saw that school leaders around the country were confronting increasingly volatile school environments. From managing anxiety and fear to responding to derogatory language and acts of bias, principals, superintendents and other district and building leaders have a tremendous challenge ahead. With this understanding in mind, we offer these suggestions to school administrators:

• Set the tone. We’re aware that many superintendents and principals around the country have sent letters to staff and families.10 Your message should affirm your school’s values, set expectations about inclusion and respect, and explain your vision for the school community.

• Take care of the wounded. Many students – especially immigrant, LGBT, Muslim and African- American students – are profoundly upset and worried by the election results. Their anxiety is warranted; many have been targeted in and out of school by individuals who think Trump’s election has licensed hatred and bigotry. Let your school community know that you have a plan – and the necessary resources – to provide for the needs of specific students.

• Double down on anti-bullying strategies. Encourage everyone in the school community to be aware of bullying, harassment and bias in all their forms. Remind them of the school’s written policies, and set the expectation that your staff be ready to act. Not everyone has to be a superhero, but everyone can be an ally and an upstander.

• Encourage courage. It’s especially important to let staff and students know that you expect them to speak up when they see or hear something that denigrates any member of the school community. When students interrupt biased language, calmly ask questions, correct misinformation and echo others who do the same, they send their peers a clear message: This kind of language doesn’t fly here.

• Be ready for a crisis. The news and social media are awash in posts about ugly bias incidents – and even hate crimes – in our communities and our schools.11When an incident happens, you will not have time to learn how to manage it: You need to be prepared. 

Maureen Costello leads the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Teaching Tolerance project. The survey questions can be found at: iles/ u76079/Teaching%20Tolerance%20Post- Election%20Survey.pdf . This is an edited version of the report. It appears here with the kind permission of the Southern Poverty Law Centre. The full report, plus additional references, can be found at: effect-impact-2016-presidential-ele.

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9. Miller, A. (2003) The Crucible: A Play in 4 Acts. New York: Penguin Classics.
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Category: Autumn 2017

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