Alexis and her brother are away—and offline—this month at overnight summer camp. They’ve both been asking in letters home for updates on the presidential campaigns.
* * *
There are reports across the country of what’s been called “the Trump Effect,” a phenomenon blamed—legitimately or not—for a rise in reported incidents of anti-Semitism, religious intolerance, anti-immigrant hate speech, and general incivility, including among students. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group, recently surveyed teachers about their perceptions and experiences about the current election cycle in regard to their classroom activities.
The results, while unscientific, suggest an unsettling trend. In an analysis of over 5,000 submitted comments, “Trump” was mentioned more than 1,000 times, says Maureen Costello, the SPLC’s director of education programs. All other political candidates combined—including Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders—were mentioned a total of 162 times.
The survey of 2,000 teachers was not nationally representative, and it targeted teachers already on the group's mailing list or who had visited their website. Even so, Costello believes the findings do speak to widely held beliefs among educators.
There’s a consistency to the teachers’ comments, she added. Those working in schools with large immigrant populations say kids are actively afraid about what might happen to themselves and their families if Trump were elected. And explaining the American political system’s checks and balances isn’t much help. “A lot of immigrant kids are from countries where electing one person can make a big difference,” Costello says. “Telling them, ‘Oh, we’re a country of laws and the president alone doesn’t have that much power’ is somewhat meaningless. It doesn’t erase their fears.”
At the same time, teachers are afraid to alienate parents or other adults in the community who might be Trump supporters, Costello says. Half of the teacher respondents said they wouldn’t talk about the election in their classrooms. And the SPLC also heard about principals who warned teachers against even mentioning a candidate’s name during school hours. “We need to teach how to contend with each other, how to disagree, how to discuss public issues, and we need to do that from elementary school on,” Costello says. “That seems very obvious, and yet even educators are fearful of doing it.”
Some of the debates in the public sphere now “would have been unheard of a year ago,” says Meira Levinson, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education—such as whether individuals should be required to register with the police based on their religious faith.
“Teachers are having to confront whether you take the public statements at some sort of face value, or ... address their validity,” Levinson says. They’re having to think about “what you do when you have a major party candidate, who has the support of millions of Americans, making these kinds of claims that violate the values that are also simultaneously pretty well-embraced by people as being appropriate values to teach in the classroom.”