Mock election canceled: How the 2016 race is playing out in schools

One Long Island elementary school canceled its mock election this week when the political rhetoric among students became too heated. Many teachers have struggled with how to teach about the current election.

Mike Spencer/AP
Students from Clyde Erwin Elementary school listen as Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia speaks at the Jack Amyette Recreation Center during a campaign rally in Jacksonville, N.C. on Monday.

Chants of "Trump! Trump! Trump!" and talk of removing Muslims from the country may be par for the course at the Republican presidential candidate's campaign rallies. 

But what happens when those chants take place inside a school cafeteria? 

Administrators at Jericho Elementary School in Centereach, N.Y., responded to that question this week by canceling the school's mock presidential election, replacing the candidates on the ballot with a less divisive poll of favorite school lunches. Students' rhetoric around Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and minority groups had become too extreme, principal Glen Rogers told local TV station ABC 7 in explanation of the decision, "and there were some negative things said." 

At a time when polls show partisan polarization in the United States at a record high, the question of how, or even whether, to engage students in this year's presidential election is not unique to Jericho. A certain amount of political polarization inevitably trickles down into schools during election season, education experts say. But the 2016 presidential race, with its racially-charged rhetoric, sexual assault and email malfeasance allegations, protests that turned violent, and two historically unpopular candidates, has elicited new levels of emotion among adults and children alike, leaving teachers and administrators to grapple with how to promote civic engagement while maintaining civility in the classroom. 

"Preparing citizens who are able to engage in civic discourse and have a certain level of political tolerance is an important part of the role of public schools in a democracy, and there are important opportunities for students to learn during critical moments, like now, in US history," says Laura May, an associate professor of early childhood and elementary education at Georgia State University, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "But in times like now, in the midst of heated and extreme views that are often uncompromising, teachers and schools are vulnerable."

The fear of dividing or offending students appears to be a common theme among educators: A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April found that more than 40 percent of roughly 2,000 teachers surveyed said they were hesitant to teach about the election. 

Teachers are "really wrestling with this," Meira Levinson, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, told The Atlantic in July. "How do they distinguish between political talk and partisan talk? How much of it should they allow? Is it right for students to try to convince each other of their views?" 

But some argue that the heated – and, oftentimes, debatably offensive – rhetoric of the election is all the more reason for educators to engage their students in political discourse. 

"The language of violence and hate that has been stirred up around this election makes it more delicate, tough and fearful to have conversations, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to have them," said Diane Douglas, executive director of Seattle CityClub, a non-partisan group that focuses on civic engagement, to KING 5 News in Seattle. "We should to try to model for children how to talk about difference of experiences, race and point of view in a civil, respectful way." 

How, exactly, does one facilitate such a discussion? The first step, Professor May says, is ensuring that children feel safe, comfortable, and respected enough among their peers to share personal, and possibly unpopular, opinions. Once a community environment has been established, she suggests, students and teachers can work together to develop ground rules for political discussions: "what's OK, and what's not." For younger children, May says, it may be best to discuss the election in terms of familiar concepts, such as kindness and fairness.

But when discussing candidates who many disagree with not only politically but also morally, framing the election in moral terms also requires a more nuanced approach.

"The key" to discussing the moral implications of candidates' words or actions without alienating student supporters, writes Wayne Journell, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, "is that teachers have to be purposeful in how they frame questions and take firm stands on issues that are/should be 'settled,' or not controversial, and allow for tolerant discourse on issues that are 'open' on which multiple, rational opinions exist."

For example, he tells the Monitor in an email, rather than prompting a discussion on whether Mr. Trump's controversial comments on women in a leaked 2005 Access Hollywood video are morally acceptable, teachers should ask whether the remarks are grounds to disqualify him from the presidency. Or, rather than debating the truthfulness in Trump's allusion to Mexican immigrants as rapists, discuss specific policies related to that statement. 

While the content and nature of the discussions may vary depending on school, location, and grade level, the most important thing, Professor Journell believes, is providing a model and channel for civil discourse in the classroom – something that cannot be achieved through censorship. 

Rather than canceling mock elections or avoiding classroom discussions, Journell says, administrators should "address the problem by using it as a teachable moment that addresses what types of political discourse should be expected within a democracy. Regardless of where one stands politically, being able to tolerantly deliberate issues with those who have divergent views is a skill that needs to be modeled and practiced, and schools have a responsibility to aid in that development." 

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