Why Are Third-Graders Afraid of Donald Trump?

As students process the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s fear-inducing rhetoric, educators are left to wrestle with bringing these lessons into the classroom.

Hadley Green

Although he’s almost a decade shy of the voting age, Micah St. George has a message he’s anxious to deliver to the Republican National Committee: Please don’t nominate Donald Trump for president.

A soon-to-be fourth grader in Newton, Massachusetts, Micah is the co-founder of Kids Against Trump, a group that started with a paper petition passed around the playground at Angier Elementary, a K-6 school in a bucolic suburb just west of Boston.

The idea for the petition started in February after some of Trump’s speeches. The candidate’s words troubled Micah on two levels. First of all, there were Trump’s disparaging comments about women, Muslims, and immigrants. Micah was adopted from Guatemala as an infant, and he has two moms. So it felt to Micah like Trump was attacking his family and friends.

But another thought stuck with Micah: I can understand everything he’s saying.

“He’s talking on my level—I’m 9 years old, ” Micah says. “That’s not okay.”

Micah’s friend and classmate Alexis Fridman—who started the original recess petition with him and is the other co-founder of Kids Against Trump—put it another way: “If I talked like Donald Trump, I’d get sent to the principal’s office immediately.”

It would be easy to dismiss Micah and Alexis as precocious kids with grassroots dreams. Their group isn’t very big. It’s just them and a few friends and neighbors, plus they have support from about 200 people who have so far signed their Change.org petition. Also, close to 500 people follow the group’s Facebook page, and have offered virtual support from far-flung states.

While there are examples of college-age young people organizing against both Trump (see an an open letter started by students at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater) and Clinton (her rallies have drawn student protesters), Kids Against Trump’s founders appear to be at the fore of the elementary-age set. (Requests for comment from the Trump campaign, as well as RNC chairman Reince Priebus, were not answered.)

But national civics experts, educators, and researchers say the actions of Micah and Alexis are indicative of a wider trend—and some significant issues—for public schools. A recent survey of teachers found many are struggling to reassure students, particularly those from immigrant and Muslim families, who are frightened about what a Trump victory in November might mean for them. (A new ad from Hillary Clinton’s campaign centers on kids as a particularly vulnerable audience for the presumptive Republican nominee’s rhetoric.)

At the same time, educators report they are afraid to violate school-district policies that prohibit political advocacy in the classroom. They also worry about alienating families that might hold divergent viewpoints. On the upside, there's a chance this could spur great civic engagement by young people—but at what price?

Researchers say a key indicator of kids’ civic engagement is whether their own parents take part in related activities. And Micah’s home life certainly influences his political awareness: His mother, Shivonne St. George, teaches social studies at a middle school in a neighboring town. She and her partner, Erika Schluntz, talk regularly with their son about current events. But the idea for the petition originated with Micah and Alexis, their parents say.

Like Micah, Alexis says she has an avid interest in politics, and her concerns about Trump have a personal dimension. Her father is a computer engineer who immigrated from Mexico at age 17 to attend Boston University and later became a U.S. citizen. Because of that family heritage, Trump’s comments “don’t feel so far away” to Alexis, her mother says: “When someone starts talking about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, and your grandmother—who you call abuela—is in Mexico, it resonates.”

While the 2016 election is a regular topic of conversation in the Fridman household for both Alexis and her 13-year-old brother Jacob, their mother, Nanette Fridman, says she’s mindful not to push. Alexis decided to take a break from the petition work this spring to focus on other activities like soccer, and that was fine with her parents. When Alexis decided to ramp back up the activities with a free lemonade stand that doubled as a chance to gather more signatures in the neighborhood, that was okay, too. “You don’t want to be out ahead leading your kids on something like this,” says Nanette Fridman. They’re learning from this experience because it’s their project.”

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.

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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.”

While classroom controversies during an election year are nothing new, teachers are “really wrestling with this,” Levinson continued. “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?”

During a recent conference for Massachusetts civics educators, Levinson asked a group to consider what topics qualify as “open” questions up for debate, and those that are “closed” or settled. She cited voting rights for women as an example of a settled matter. (The exercise was drawn from Controversy in the Classroom by Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Education.)

A teacher in attendance said she would prefer to leave all questions “open” in the interest of fairness to her students’ personal beliefs. But that’s an impractical approach given the required material teachers already have to cover in what’s typically a limited amount of instructional time, and it doesn’t jive with what should be an educator’s priorities, Levinson says.

“My guess is that if I were to stop the vast majority of Trump supporters on the street and say, ‘Do you think that teachers should have anti-racist classrooms and should teach kids to treat each other equally and be against bullying?’ they would say, ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes, absolutely’,” Levinson says. “We don't have value-free classrooms. We never will, and we never should.”

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Micah and Alexis collected almost 60 signatures from fellow third-graders during recess the first day of their campaign. They later decided to mount a bigger effort beyond the playground. They were told by school staff not to pursue the petition during school hours so that it didn’t become a distraction, according to their parents—a stipulation that’s in line with Newton Public Schools’ policies. (Their third-grade teacher declined to be interviewed for this story, and school administrators were unavailable for comment.) Micah and Alexis say they’ve been careful to abide by the rules.

Newton—a tree-lined Boston suburb known for its historic homes and excellent public schools—isn’t obvious Trump Country. Last year Democrats accounted for 44 percent of the city’s registered voters, compared with about 8 percent who registered as Republicans. (Another 45 percent were unaffiliated with a political party.) The population is 80 percent white and typically more affluent than the statewide average, although there are pockets of lower-income households. The city has one of the state’s biggest Jewish communities, as well as a large number of residents of Asian descent. In 2009, Newton became the state’s first city to elect an African American mayor—Setti Warren. About 3.5 percent of Newton’s population is black, and 5 percent is Hispanic, according to the city’s database. (I grew up in Newton and attended the original Angier School, which was rebuilt last year.)

The city has found itself in the headlines in recent months for several incidents involving allegations of racist vandalism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism. Mayor Warren, now serving his second term, held a townhall meeting here in April to clear the air. According to The Boston Globe, it devolved at one point into a shouting match among adults, while the students in attendance were markedly better behaved.

“How do we make sure we have a inclusive and welcoming community and we’re all contributing to that and we’re not leaving it up to an elected official? … We have a lot of work to do around those questions,” Warren told me. “It’s not just Newton but everywhere. There needs to be a concerted effort to bring our communities together around civic engagement. It doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with each other all the time. But we have an understanding of each other’s perspectives and positions.” The city is working to increase civic engagement among its residents of all ages, Warren says, and the public schools are a critical piece of that puzzle.

Alan Ripp, the coordinator of history and social sciences for grades K-8 in Newton Public Schools, agrees. Ripp was aware of the elementary students’ anti-Trump petition, and, politics aside, their decision to take action is not out of line with some of the lessons the district tries to teach. “That’s answering the question of ‘How do I as an individual impact the quality of life for myself and others?’ We try to instill that from kindergarten on,” Ripp says.

One of Ripp’s summer priorities is developing a game plan to help teachers address the presidential election when classes resume in the fall. (He attended the May training session led by Harvard professor Levinson.) “I want to make sure that kids can express who they are, but that we think about where kids are developmentally, and what’s appropriate,” Ripp said. “We’re a public school—there are certain conversations where we need to say, ‘You asking these questions or thinking about these things is really good. I hope you will talk about this with your family.’”

Finding trustworthy resources to share with teachers is another challenge, Ripp says. “I worry about it because I think some of our most vulnerable students are going to be hearing really horrible messages about who they are, who their families are,” Ripp said. “I’m not a parent and I don’t know how parents do it … How do you balance knowledge and protection?”

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To be sure, ensuring an engaged and informed citizenry has historically been considered one of the strongest arguments for free public schools. But civics is typically a low priority during the instructional day, in part because most states don’t require knowledge of the subject on high-stakes tests.

There’s been a national push in recent years to make civics education more of a priority, even as some individual states have taken steps on their own to do so. In 2014, Arizona became the first state to require high school students to pass a citizenship test to graduate. Florida and Tennessee have both added high-school civics exams, and as of July 1, Illinois requires all high-schoolers to complete a semester-long civics course.

Shawn Healy, a civics scholar with the Chicago-based Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which promotes civic engagement, is spending part of his summer working with teachers to get them ready for Illinois’s new requirements. The presidential election—and Trump in particular—poses a special challenge, he says. There are ways to have frank conversations about controversial political issues in public schools, he added. And the payoff could be significant—for individual students as well as schools and broader communities.

“There’s a lack of trust in government and institutions—I think you saw it with the [Bernie] Sanders voters, and it's certainly a big thrust of the Trump campaign and his supporters,” Healy says. “We need to rebuild that public trust, and a good civic education can do that. The answer to these problems lies with each of us. It's not with any single candidate, or any single campaign.”

No one understands the fine line educators are walking in their classrooms better than Micah’s mother, Shivonne St. George. The public middle school where she teaches uses a curriculum developed by Facing History and Ourselves, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that focuses on encouraging tolerance and discouraging the spread of fascism. During a unit on human behavior that included the Holocaust, St. George asked her students to analyze the Nazi Party’s platform from 1920. (Sometimes referred to as The 25 Point Program, it was a launching point for Hitler’s rise to power over the next decade.)

“We were going down the list, breaking them down so the kids could understand exactly what the Nazis were proposing,” St. George recalls. “Without prompting from me in any way, shape or form, I have 12-year-olds all day long raising their hands and saying to me ‘Ms. St. George—isn’t that like what Donald Trump is saying?’”

As unsettling as those moments were, St. George says she tried to turn them into teachable ones. “I would ask them, ‘Well, what is it (Trump) has said that sounds similar?’, and try and facilitate a discussion about that,” St. George says. “I don’t think it would be fair, or responsible of me as an educator, to just ignore kids when they make those kinds of connections.”

As for Micah, he has a backup plan should Trump be elected: “We’re going to move to Ireland,” he says. “Canada’s closer, though. So we might go to Canada.”

He and Alexis know there are slim odds that the RNC will be swayed by their efforts as the convention gets underway. But they’re not discouraged.

“I just think anything someone does can help, like signing a petition or putting up a sign in your yard,” Micah says. “Even if what you do is small, it’s still a really good thing.”