Countering the “Trump Effect”: Tips for Schools

30 Dec in
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by DSC member Jason Langberg

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” – James Baldwin

In Maple Grove, Minnesota, someone wrote graffiti in a school bathroom that read, “#WhiteAmerica,” “WhitesOnly,” “#GoBackToAfrica,” “FuckNiggers,” “Trump,” and “Make American Great Again.”

In Oviedo, Florida, someone scrawled on a bathroom wall, “Yall Black ppl better start picking yall slave numbers. KKK. 4Lyfe.” and “Go Trump. 2016."

In Newtown, Pennsylvania, someone wrote "I Love Trump," drew swastikas, and wrote a derogatory remark about gay people on a piece of paper in the girls' bathroom. Another person wrote on a toilet paper dispenser in another bathroom, "If Trump wins, watch out!"

In York County, Pennsylvania, white students walked through school with a Trump sign, yelling, “White power!”.

In Polson, Montana, two students came to school wearing shirts with phrases like, “White Power” and “White Pride,” written next to an endorsement of Donald Trump.

In DeWitt, Michigan, students blocked a fellow student from getting to her locker and said, “Donald Trump for president. Let’s build the wall. Let’s make America great again. You need to go back to Mexico.”

In South Tahoe, California, one student said to another, “After we get Trump elected, you and your family are going to the other side of the wall.”

In Merrillville, Indiana, at a high school basketball game, a group of students from a mostly White school produced signs and images of Donald Trump and began to chant “Build that wall,” at the other team and fans, who were predominantly Hispanic.

In Wesley Chapel, Florida, a high school teacher told an African American student, “Don't make me call Donald Trump to get you sent back to Africa.”

In Nashville, Tennessee, a third-grader sought counseling after a fellow student told him that he would not be able to see one of his two mothers now that Donald Trump has been elected.

This is the so-called “Trump Effect” – hateful and violent words and actions that are fueling fear, anxiety, tension, and bullying in schools across the country. As Jeffrey Sprague, a Professor of Special Education at the University of Oregon, describes: “[C]hildren imitate the words and behaviors they hear. ‘Attractive’ role models (such as parents or others in authority such as political candidates) may have a stronger modeling effect. When children watch television or other media and listen to their parents or others in authority talk about political candidates such as Trump and his statements, they learn to use the same language in their daily discourse.”

Katherine Kinzler, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, writes, “[P]ast research from psychology suggests that a ‘Trump effect’ on children’s attitudes is very likely real. Children are cultural sponges: They absorb the mores that surround them – how to dress, what to eat, what to say. … Unfortunately, this includes learning your society’s explicit and implicit views of the status and worth of different social groups.”

So, when young people hear – first- or second-hand – Donald Trump objectify women and talk about grabbing them “by the pussy,” characterize Mexicans as criminals and rapists, campaign on building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, promise to exclude Muslims from the U.S. and force those already here to register, and mock a person with a disability, they may internalize and repeat such messages. Similarly, when young people hear the racist, xenophobic, sexist, and classist language and actions of Trump’s supporters, they may internalize and repeat those messages as well. And young people may emulate the hate groups, like the Klu Klux Klan and so-called “Alt-Right” (a loose group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis), that celebrate Trump’s victory, and the bigots who surround Trump, like Steven Bannon and Jeff Sessions.

Bullying was pervasive among children and youth before Trump was elected – especially in schools, where it occurs more frequently than in any other setting. Approximately one-quarter of students report having been bullied at school, and 70% of students report having witnessed bullying at school.  Students who belong to groups that are targeted by Trump’s rhetoric – including those who are racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; and those with disabilities – are already more likely than others to be bullied in school.

The “Trump Effect” appears to be exacerbating bullying in schools, especially for the most vulnerable students. In the week after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) received over 700 reports of hateful harassment incidents. Nearly 40% of the incidents occurred in K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. SPLC documented 867 “hate incidents” across the country in the ten days following the election, 183 of which were in K-12 schools. Additionally, SPLC’s “Teaching Tolerance” project administered an online survey to over 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators, and others who work in schools. Ninety percent of respondents reported that school climate has been negatively affected by the result of the presidential election, and most of them believe the election result will have a long-lasting impact. Moreover, ample anecdotal evidence – widely covered in media outlets – also suggests the “Trump Effect” is all too real.

It is too early to determine the full nature and extent of the “Trump Effect.” Whether small or large, fleeting or lasting, we must do everything possible to mitigate its effects on our young people. Unfortunately, much of the burden of countering the “Trump Effect” unfairly falls where so many of society’s problems land – on the shoulders of over-burdened, under-resourced educators. Not only does most bullying take place in schools and harm those students directly involved, but also bullying negatively affects climate, safety, and achievement for all students and staff. Furthermore, in many instances, federal civil rights laws, state statutes and regulations, and local policies require school staff to respond to bullying.

To help safeguard students’ physical and emotional safety, schools should, at a minimum, take the following six actions.

#1:  Self-reflect

Schools should examine their own policies and practices to ensure that students are not being sent implicit messages that reinforce bullying mentalities. Just as young people may internalize through the “Trump Effect,” their view of themselves and others may be adversely impacted by biased curricula, segregation, tracking, achievement gaps, discipline disparities, and even the name of their school.

#2:  Assess bullying

Schools should survey students, parents, and staff to assess the frequency, location, and types of bullying  that is occurring. A well-designed survey aids in effectively targeting interventions and resources. Participants should be able to respond anonymously and schools should respect their privacy rights.

#3:  Prevent bullying

To prevent bullying, schools should adopt a holistic approach to creating a caring and positive climate and a sense of community among students, parents, and staff. As part of a holistic approach:

  • Schools should engage students and parents in school safety assessments and planning, thereby benefiting from the collective wisdom and creating buy-in.
  • Schools should establish clear expectations about how members of the school community treat one another. For example, a school’s mission statement, rules, and student bill of rights ought to include language about members of the school community treating each other with respect, valuing diversity, and helping one another.
  • Schools should make social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of the whole school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” SEL can take many forms, including free-standing lessons, teaching practices, integration into the curriculum, and school-wide initiatives.
  • Schools should create safe spaces for students to discuss issues that may contribute to bullying. Examples of such spaces include classroom meetings, town hall forums, retreats, counselor “office hours,” and mentoring.
  • Schools should promote an appreciation of diversity – for instance, through multi-cultural celebrations, curriculum, instruction, and activities.

#4:  Recognize signs of bullying

All members of the school community – including students and parents – should be trained on signs that a student is being bullied, such as:

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing or property
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits, like skipping meals or binge eating
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors, such as running away from home, self-harm, or talking about suicide

#5:  Encourage reporting of bullying

To encourage reporting of bullying, schools should:

  • Require staff to report suspected or confirmed bullying to administrators
  • Establish a student and parent reporting system that: is well-publicized to students, parents, and staff; is available in all languages spoken by students and parents; utilizes various modes of reporting, including oral, written, and electronic; allows anonymous reporting; and includes measures to ensure reporters are protected from retaliation
  • Create opportunities for school staff to check in regularly with students, especially those who exhibit signs of being bullied

#6:  Respond appropriately to bullying

All staff should be trained on responding appropriately to bullying, which involves:

  • Ensuring thorough, timely, and unbiased investigations into reports of bullying
  • Avoiding inappropriate responses, such as “stick up for yourself,” “just ignore it,” or “what’d you do?”
  • Avoiding consequences that punish the student who was bullied, such as requiring her to handle matters directly with the student who bullied or forcing her to change classes to be separated from the student who bullied
  • Avoiding consequences that push the student who bullied out of school or into the juvenile or criminal systems, such as suspension, expulsion, arrest, and referral to law enforcement
  • Utilizing positive behavioral interventions and supports that address the harms of bullying, eliminate the hostile environment, and prevent its reoccurrence – for example, counseling, academic supports, and restorative practices

Schools that take these measures will alleviate the dangers of a “Trump Effect.” But, of course, schools cannot do it alone. We must all work to ensure young people have dignity in schools.

“Safety and security don't just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society,a life free of violence and fear.” – Nelson Mandela