Is Trump scaring the kids? How teachers handle election rhetoric.

Students of all ethnicities are feeling the sting of 2016 election rhetoric, a new Southern Poverty Law Center report suggests. What can teachers do?

Carlo Allegri/REUTERS
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Syracuse, New York today.

American school teachers can use election years to teach their students valuable lessons about citizenship, democracy, and responsibility. This year, however, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) one of the candidates is teaching students about something else: bullying.

Donald Trump has been criticized by voters, commentators, and fellow politicians for his language and the violence that sometimes arises at his campaign events. This new report, however, says his campaign is reaching into the schools.

The SPLC used data from an online survey through their Teaching Tolerance program to evaluate the impact that the election has had on students.

According to the study, more than two thirds of teachers surveyed said that some of their students (particularly Mexican-American or Muslim students) expressed concerns related to the campaign.

Teachers report that Mexican American and Muslim students are afraid that they will either be deported or disliked because of their heritage. One high school teacher in North Carolina said that students are so concerned about these things that they have taken to carrying their birth certificates with them, in order to be prepared to prove their US citizenship.

“One [fourth grade] student reported that she thought everyone hated her because her mother was illegal,” said an elementary school administrator from Washington state, “and she didn’t want to come to school. Over 35 percent of our students are Mexican. I’ve never had this … before this year."

Even students with African-American heritage, who have not been major targets of election vitriol, have expressed concerns.

“My students are terrified of Donald Trump,” said one middle school teacher. “They think that if he’s elected, all black people will get sent back to Africa.”

Students are not just concerned about minority students and their reactions to the election, but they are also concerned about an increasing in bullying that they say seems to reflect election angst.

Teachers reported that students have taken rhetoric from the political sphere and are now using it in the classroom. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the election has emboldened bullies.

One fifth grade teacher reported a case of bullying against a Muslim student. The bully told his victim, “that he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president!”

What lessons can teachers and parents draw from the study?

The study is called “The Trump Effect,” yet as some commentators have pointed out, aggressive or strident rhetoric is not restricted to Mr. Trump.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, famously pledged to carpet bomb terrorists in the Middle East, including statements such as, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”

And it isn’t only the current US presidential election. Past elections have featured strong language and insults, and given the interconnectivity of today’s world, politicians are likely to continue to discuss international issues like terrorism and immigration.

The 2016 campaign rhetoric has had a chilling effect on some teachers. More than 40 percent stated that they were hesitant to teach about the election, says the study.

Other teachers have accepted their role as discussion leaders, both to help children handle politics today, and prepare them for the future.

After all, as a Michigan elementary school teacher wrote in the survey, “Shying away from difficult conversations doesn’t mean the conversations aren’t taking place.”

Although home life and the media are important socializing agents, teachers have the ability to shape discussion for several hours each day. As the SPLC suggests in its report, teachers can use these hours to direct discussions about bullying, diversity, and tolerance, instead of ignoring student fears.

Between 1999 and 2015, all 50 states passed laws against bullying in the schools. And while there are no federal laws that specifically address school bullying, there are non-discrimination laws supported by the US Department of Education.

Education is also known for instilling acceptance of ethic or cultural differences. A 2014 study by UNESCO found that worldwide, in a number of regions, and in countries with various income levels, education was a primary driver of tolerance.

For these reasons, and others, the SPLC recommends that teachers use this year’s election as an opportunity to educate, not just about the election cycle or the political process, but about tolerance and how to respond to bullying – in the political realm or on the playground.

“We urge educators not to abandon their teaching about the election, to use instances of incivility as teaching moments,” the Southern Poverty Law Center stated in the report, “and to support the children who are hurt, confused and frightened by what they’re hearing from the candidates.”

Some teachers have taken up the challenge by emphasizing the importance of facts and fact checking during the election season. Others are talking about media bias. Many have emphasized the importance of treating others with respect.

Still, said one Washington state high school teacher,  “I hope they don’t walk away thinking this is what politics is all about.”

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