Across America’s public high schools, the intolerance and bullying modeled by President Trump and the 2016 election has led to an outbreak of incivility, victimization and heightened stresses for a spectrum of minorities, according to a national report from the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
Teachers have seen innumerable examples of white students preying on others—feeling empowered by Trump’s rhetoric and polticies. Students on the receiving end have shouldered pressures not just from insensitive peers, but exhibited stressful symptoms tied to threats of deportation and victimization due to their race, religion and gender identity. In many schools, teachers are overwhelmed and are avoiding topics that could provoke attacks in the classroom and predatory behavior in the hallways. In other schools, administrators have had to take extra steps to publicly draw lines on discrimination, racial profiling and harassment of LGBTQ students.
These dismal trends were described in great detail, with many testimonials from teachers, in the UCLA report, Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools by John Rogers and his research team. The scholars at UCLA interviewed more than 1,500 teachers in 333 public high schools nationwide starting last spring, followed up by more discussions over the summer.
“Throughout his campaign and in his presidency to date, Donald Trump has addressed a number of ‘hot-button’ topics that call into question the status or rights of many different groups in American society,” their report’s summary said. “The charged political rhetoric surrounding these and other issues often has been polarizing and contentious. Many would agree that, since Donald Trump has moved into the White House, national political discourse has become a more potent force in shaping the consciousness and everyday experiences of Americans. It is important to ask if this new political environment has impacted high school students.”
The report begins with statistics quantifying the increases in stresses in students as seen by teachers, compared to before the 2016 election. These figures are alarming, as they show how public schools, which, for decades, have been a great equalizing force in the country, have become venues for bigotry and victimization.
For example, the report says stresses facing students are skyrocketing, “particularly in schools enrolling few white students.” The researchers note:
• 51.4% of teachers in our sample reported more students experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety” than in previous years. Only 6.6% of teachers reported fewer students experiencing high stress than previous years. A Pennsylvania teacher reported: “Many students were very stressed and worried after the election. They vocalized their worries over family members’ immigration status and healthcare, as well as LGBT rights.”
• 79% of teachers reported that their students have expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families associated with recent public policy discourse on one or more hot-button issues, including immigration, travel limitations on predominantly Muslim countries, restrictions on LGBTQ rights, changes to health care, or threats to the environment.
• 58% of teachers reported that some of their students had expressed concerns in relationship to proposals for deporting undocumented immigrants. A Nebraska coach recounted that some of his student-athletes have begun to live their lives in “survival mode” because “at any time they could be possibly picked up by the police and deported to a country that they didn’t even grow up in.” A Utah teacher overheard her students grappling with what would happen should their undocumented parents face deportation. “Would I stay, because I was born here,” one student asked. “But how would I survive if my dad got taken back to Mexico?”
These first-person accounts are as riveting as they are disturbing, because they also underscore how Trump’s rhetoric and policies are undermining education itself—how students study, converse, communicate and learn.
The UCLA report said, “44.3% of teachers reported that students’ concerns about well-being in relation to one or more hot-button policy issues impacted students’ learning—their ability to focus on lessons and their attendance. A number of teachers also pointed to policy threats undermining students’ educational and career goals. A New Jersey teacher related that one of her students “had to postpone her plan to join the Navy because her parents had made her legal guardian of her siblings, in the event that her parents were deported.”
The increased polarization has included a rise in white supremacy. “Polarization, incivility, and reliance on unsubstantiated sources have risen, particularly in predominantly white schools,” the report said. “More than 20% of teachers reported heightened polarization on campus and incivility in their classrooms. A social studies teacher in North Carolina noted: “In my 17 years I have never seen anger this blatant and raw over a political candidate or issue.” A West Virginia social studies teacher explained that her students have interpreted politicians saying, “It’s not important to be ‘politically correct’” to mean “I can say anything about anyone.”
“27.7% of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions,” the report said. “Many teachers described how the political environment “unleashed” virulently racist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic rhetoric in their schools and classrooms. An Indiana English teacher explained: “Individuals who do harbor perspectives and racism and bigotry now feel empowered to offer their views more naturally in class discussions, which has led to tension, and even conflict in the classroom.”
The report also said administrators and leaders in less than half the schools are responding proactively to try to counter or contain these aggressions.
“40.9% of teachers reported that their school leadership made public statements this year about the value of civil exchange and understanding across lines of difference,” the report said. “But beyond the “public statements” only 26.8% of school leaders actually provided guidance and support on these issues, as reported by teachers in the survey. Teachers in predominantly White schools were much less likely than their peers to report that their school leaders had taken these actions. Hence, the schools most likely to experience polarization and incivility were the least likely to have leaders responding to these issues proactively.”
Nearly three-fourths of the teachers surveyed agreed that, “My school leadership should provide more guidance, support, and professional development opportunities on how to promote civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.” And more than nine out of ten teachers squarely placed the blame on political leaders, who they urged to start modeling better behavior. “91.6% of teachers surveyed agreed that: “national, state, and local leaders should encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.” Almost as many (83.9%) agreed that national and state leaders should “work to alleviate the underlying factors that create stress and anxiety for young people and their families.”
The report’s most compelling elements, however, were not the big-picture statistics. They were first person accounts from teachers about the pain that students—empowered by Trump’s racism, intolerance and bullying—are inflicting on others, as well as the impact and response among the targeted students. What follows are excerpts from the report’s first person accounts.
• Nicole Morris, a Utah social studies teacher, said some students felt on edge with anxiety because the Trump administration’s policies and rhetoric on immigration enforcement threatened their families. Morris describes one student sitting in her geography class “worried about his parents getting deported,” while trying to focus on a lesson about the religions of India. Another of her students uncharacteristically missed homework assignments after “his dad got deported” because “he’s now working to help support his family,” and so has less time for school assignments. For these students, she concludes, “it was more stressful, for sure.” For a few students, being on the edge meant being open, when they previously would have remained silent, about the vulnerabilities they felt in the face of the changing political climate. Such was the case for students who, after the election, told classmates, “This could be a big thing for my family.” Or, for another student who shared that election results were particularly disturbing to her because she was a survivor of sexual assault. “I guess what this means,” she told the class, “is it’s okay to openly assault women.”
• Jeff Seuss, a social studies teacher and coach in Nebraska, reported that some of his student-athletes have begun to live their lives in “survival mode” because “at any time they could be possibly picked up by the police and deported to a country that they didn’t even grow up in.” In New Jersey, many of Lisa Camden’s students from immigrant families similarly experienced “far greater levels of stress.” She noted that, “in class, students have cried about how they are worried about the outcome of their family members.” Several teachers reported that the greatest fear for students was the prospect that their parents would be deported, leaving them all alone.
• Connecticut English teacher Amy Clark recalled the intense reaction of fear that came every time one of her students received his mother’s text, as he worried that this would be news that his father had been detained. In Ohio, Aaron Burger recounted the story of an undocumented student—a “bright and engaged kid”—whose mother had heard rumors about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials raiding a workplace much like her own. Burger’s student “broke down and cried and wondered if she was next.”
• In Delaware, one of Jake Norris’ highest performing students—Amina—underwent a dramatic change following the announcement of the travel ban. Whereas Amina previously had a “good sense of humor” and was “very dedicated to her studies,” she became deeply concerned that “she was never going to see some people again.” Amina also generally felt more vulnerable: “like if her father did his taxes wrong, then they were all going to get forcibly removed from their home.” Norris described how Amina “visibly changed—her color had changed, her demeanor, her body language.”
• Whereas immigrant youth and Muslim youth often expressed concern about specific policies or potential enforcement actions, LGBTQ youth and their allies responded to a more general sense of threat that they sensed from national political rhetoric. Astrid Natividad, an English teacher in New York reported: “I have gay students who were scared that they were going to lose the rights that they just celebrated achieving.” Across the country in Oregon, Jane Gorman noted that the group of students who were “most visibly upset, and afraid, and scared” following the election were her LGBTQ students or kids who identified closely with the community because of friends and family.” Stacy Marx, an English teacher working in what she describes as a very conservative Wyoming community recounted a similar story. One of her students cried in class the day after the election and “the biggest reason she felt so sad was that she was talking about all of her friends that are like transgender, or bisexual, or whatever, and she just felt like the hateful talk towards them would increase, so it hit her that way.”
• A number of teachers spoke about the ways that national political rhetoric shaped student interaction during class discussions. Colorado English teacher Kimberly Bran wrote that “the tone of the election spilled into the classroom and many students felt free to make unkind statements to those who did not agree with them.” Jimmy Lloyd in Utah spoke eloquently about the tendency for students to approach classroom discussions as an opportunity to “mock or offend.” He went on to explain: “I believe the unhealthy discourse that surrounded the previous election and that continues into the current presidential office has empowered students to speak recklessly and even disrespectfully because it is now seen as normal… Students feed off of this.”
• Many teachers responded to heightened tension in their classrooms by avoiding uncomfortable topics. Emily Hall in Delaware reported that she has been “less likely to bring up politics … [because] both sides are so emotionally charged … that they forget to respect each other’s thoughts.” She went on to add that it has been very hard to maintain civil exchange, and concluded: “So I avoid.” For some teachers, avoidance entailed eliminating all engagement with current events. Joshua Cooper in Wisconsin tried to steer clear of any issues that might provoke “potential conflict.”
• Numerous teachers spoke of ways that dynamics in the broader political environment unleashed prejudicial, racist, and xenophobic sensibilities. Patrick Sawyer in Texas wrote that on his campus there was a feeling of “justification, of outwardly being more open with bigotry, etc. because of the election results.” In Virginia, some of Will Carmel’s white students explained to administrators that they had a right to taunt “Hispanic students with ‘build the wall’” because “this isn’t any different” than what the president has done. Pat Weber, an English teacher in Indiana explained: “Individuals who do harbor perspectives and racism and bigotry now feel empowered to offer their views more naturally in class discussions, which has led to tension, and even conflict in the classroom.”
• Jude Canon, who teaches in what he described as a “very white community” in North Carolina, recounted a searing incident of racial intimidation that occurred in his U.S. History class. In the course of a lesson on Columbus enslaving and mistreating the native people in Hispaniola, one of his students said: “Well, that’s what needed to happen. They were just dumb people anyways like they are today. That was the purpose, that’s why we need a wall.” Multiple student agreed, leading to what Canon characterized as a “huge rile in the classroom.” After class, two Latina students whose families are migrant workers came up to Canon and said: “That’s not something we want to talk about. … He doesn’t need to be saying stuff like that in class. We are worried for our wellbeing. We’re worried about things not going good for us.”
• Students overtly embraced the logic of white supremacy, deployed rhetoric or symbols made popular through national politics, and confronted classmates in threatening ways. Ingrid Dane, an English teacher in Washington reported that some of her students have: Told African Americans in my class that they wish they could go back to the “good old days,” referring to slavery times. And still others have told Hispanic students how excited they are about the wall. “Make America Great Again” has become a popular slogan to say when demeaning someone, telling someone to leave the country, and telling female classmates they should learn to cook and not go to college.
• In Arkansas, Tracy Neely has overheard students in the hallway saying: “National Geographic will have to print a retraction because it is scientifically proven that whites are the superior race.” Some students have incorporated these ideas into writing and class discussions. Susan Boyer, in Delaware, reported that one of her who had made numerous discomforting comments in class, “defend[ed] the institution of slavery as a just cause.” What was particularly striking to Boyer was that this student presented a ‘white supremacy argument” rather than a more typical case for states’ rights. While bigotry certainly is not new in American public schools, the substance and tenor of these incidents struck many teachers as a dramatic departure from the norm. Boyer told us: “I have never heard anything like this before.”
• Acts of intimidation and hostility took their toll on young people and undermined student learning. Jimmy Lloyd described the experience of Muslim students in his Utah school who faced bullying in the wake of the President’s travel ban. “They were mocked. It was a small percentage of students doing it, but to those students who heard those kind of jeers, it felt like the entire school was against them.” Richard Dorn, a social studies teacher in Tennessee, similarly highlighted a feeling of vulnerability and marginalization that characterized two groups of students at his school. The LGBTQ and immigrant students tried to make themselves invisible to potential assailants. Dorn explained that they “just kind of went underground … they didn’t engage. They kind of hid from this.” Missouri teacher Delia Gonzalez worried about the “long-lasting effects” of students “being harassed, targeted, effaced by their peers.” She related that these problematic dynamics have silenced students—they have “backed away from conversations.”
What Can Be Done?
The UCLA report importantly notes that bullying, prejudice and discrimination were problems in public high schools before the 2016 campaign and Trump’s election. More than anything, the report’s authors say targeted students and populations need support, while the provocateurs and bullies need to be held accountable and set straight.
“What additional action is then needed?” the report asks. “A first answer is more support. While some teachers share [Delaware teacher] Jake Norris’ sense of agency, most would like more support so that they and their colleagues can promote civil dialogue in their classrooms. 72.3% of teachers we surveyed agreed that: “My school leadership should provide more guidance, support, and professional development opportunities on how to promote civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.” Teachers from all parts of the nation and teachers working in demographically distinct schools supported this statement at similar levels.”
“A second answer to what is needed is more data and reflection about how the new political environment is shaping student experiences,” the report said. “Bruce Williams, a social studies teacher in North Carolina, develops such understanding through ongoing observation and writing. “I think the thing that has changed for me is the amount of self-reflection. It’s deeper. … Jotting down the notes, and doing diaries, and journals on my own, to make sure I’m actually sticking to what I believe because of the climate, because of the stuff that’s out there.” Williams’s commitment is to be admired. Yet, we need structures and conditions that ensure that such reflection becomes a normal part of how educators do their work. Reflective practice requires access to information and time and space to make sense of this information and forge plans of action.”
While these suggestions and others are laudable, there’s no denying the big picture is terribly disturbing. Nobody who has studied human nature expects bigotry and prejudice to disappear, but in recent decades educators have been in the forefront of modeling tolerance, respect and communication. Sadly, the political arena, led by the president, is not just rolling back the clock to more racially divisive times; he’s encouraging the darkest forces of human nature to emerge from the shadows and take center stage. As the UCLA report says, America’s high school students are following these dismal cues.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).