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Easing Fears and Teaching Respect

In Wake of Bitter Election, Schools Seek to Support Students

For many students, the election of Donald Trump as president provoked fear and uncertainty, especially in schools with large immigrant and Muslim populations. For others it was cause for celebration, though fraught with deep divisions between fellow students who felt otherwise.

For local school districts, the aftermath of such a fierce and bitter campaign — including incidents of harassment and intimidation in Michigan schools — presents challenges to their educational mission. On one hand, educators are using the election as a teachable moment about the importance of treating people with respect and civility, regardless of whom they supported.

Related Story: Beyond Bitter Election, Students Affirm Culture of Caring
Being a Trump or Hillary supporter is one thing; being a Northview Wildcat is quite another. Student leaders at Northview High School have made that loud and clear, with acts of unity, thanks and giving in the wake of an ugly and divisive election. This week they decorated their hallways with bright banners thanking more than 100 teachers and staff…

Where to Seek Post-Election Help

Agencies have sent out information on responding to the presidential election. It includes:

To file a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, request assistance or report harassment or a hate crime, call 1-800-482-3604 or visit www.michigan.gov/MDCR and click on “File A Complaint.”

At the same time, some teachers and administrators are working to ease concerns among students in light of Trump’s campaign promises to deport undocumented immigrants, build a Mexican border wall and increase vetting of immigrant Muslims and refugees.

Case in point: At East Kentwood High School, students come from nearly 90 countries, speak more than 60 languages and represent several religions including Islam. Erin Wolohan, an English-language learner interventionist, said many students worry about their futures in the United States. Staff is working with refugee agencies including Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Servicesand Samaritas to address concerns among immigrant groups.

“There’s that fine line between supporting (students) and causing more alarm,” Wolohan said. “You have to trust that kids will come to you. So you point out that there’s a safety network and if you have anything you want to talk about, there are people in the school more than able and willing and want to help you.”

Students Express Fears

She said some students new to the U.S. do not yet have knowledge of government policy, and believed they had to leave the country immediately. Reactions included “What day do we have to be gone?” and “I don’t have money for airfare,” she said.

“They truly believed a Trump presidency meant they had to leave the country the next day. They didn’t understand because of the language barrier,” Wolohan said.

“A lot of my friends, their moms are like, ‘Are you packing?'” said East Kentwood student Samantha Garcia, whose family is from Mexico. “This one girl was telling me her aunt is on the first flight out.”

The day after the election, Principal Omar Bakri delivered a message of support and unity over the intercom. Staff considered sending out a mass mailing to ease concerns, but decided against in order to not cause more confusion among limited English-speaking families.

‘From a school standpoint we want to encourage responsible citizenship.’ — Mark Thomas, principal, Northview High School

Leading up to the election, many students asked teachers if they agree with campaign rhetoric. Wolohan said she thinks they were testing whether school is a safe climate. “That’s tricky because we don’t want to mix political views with school, but these are such unprecedented times and such a unique population.”

Mustafa Akbari, a sophomore from Afghanistan, said he was shocked by Trump’s election, and worries for people who are in the U.S. without proper documentation.

“I came here to make a better life,” he said, noting he hopes his dad, stepmom and stepsisters can join him someday. “I worry that I can’t bring them because the policy might change.”

Northview High School Principal Mark Thomas says schools should encourage “responsible citizenship”

Report Issues of Harassment

Incidents of harassment have been reported in Michigan and nationwide in the wake of the election. The Southern Poverty Law Center said it has received hundreds of hate crime reports since Election Day. Concerns about incidents in Michigan prompted State Superintendent Brian Whiston and Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin V. Arbulu to issue a joint letter urging districts to review and redistribute their anti-harassment and bullying policies.

Arbulu also issued a statement in response to incidents such as some Royal Oak Middle School students chanting “build the wall.” Saying he was “gravely concerned” about the targeting of students of color, different races or ethnicities, Arbulu said, “We urge schools and parents throughout the state to be vigilant and to intervene immediately when incidents such as the one in Royal Oak take place.”

Julie Mushing, diversity coordinator for Kent ISD, said educators need to react to any harassment including taunting at school.

“Teachers and administrators need to be listening right now and taking action,” said Mushing, adding she has been informed locally of students taunting Latino peers with words like “pack your bags,” “the wall’s going up” and “you’re going home.”

“When I’ve met with people, I’ve asked if they have heard of incidents in their districts and most indicated that students are uneasy and fearful,”she added.

There is a lot of fear among local refugees, said Susan Kragt, executive director of the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center. Some Muslims are questioning whether girls should wear their head coverings to school and parents are wondering “why they came here in the first place,” Kragt said. “Some of the racism is not new but it does seem more difficult to address when it seems condoned at a national level.”

EL interventionist Erin Wolohan has connected with local organizations to communicate with families
EL interventionist Erin Wolohan has connected with local organizations to communicate with families

A Teachable Moment

However, some districts say they’ve had minimal problems, but are still alert to the need to foster respect among students with vastly different viewpoints.

At Northview High School, Principal Mark Thomas said he heard a couple of concerns from students who were “feeling very vulnerable” after the election, but that no incidents got out of hand. He noted one student came wrapped in a Trump flag, but that after Thomas talked to him, he promptly took it off.

“I said if you really want to help your candidate, you can help the other people who feel threatened and concerned about the presidency feel better,” Thomas said. “You can help make this place a safe place. He got it right away.”

Thomas sent a letter to his staff urging them to remain “non-partisan role models of how to treat others” who disagree about the outcome of such a divisive and fear-based electoral battle. In an interview, he stressed how important it is to impart that value to students.

“From a school standpoint we want to encourage responsible citizenship,” Thomas said. “It’s almost like after a big game, if Michigan played MSU, winners are going to gloat. It’s like sportsmanship that includes civility to society.”

Taking the election as a teachable moment, he had two student leaders read a statement over the intercom calling for respect of others. During a meeting about graduation preparation, he also spoke to the senior class about the need to show empathy and take care of their fellow citizens.

“If they can’t get along and learn to live together peacefully and respectfully, learning’s not going to happen very successfully,” he said.

Katie Todd, a Northview senior who voted for Hillary Clinton in her first presidential election, said she was discouraged by the outcome but drew strength from the historic suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote.

“In true suffragette fashion, now more than ever is the time to speak out for those whose rights might be jeopardized because of the outcome of this election,” Katie said.


Talking to Students About the Election

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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