A group of Arizona students proudly unfurl a Confederate flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. Male students in Indiana are emboldened to touch girls inappropriately. In Tennessee, a student declares that Spanish classes aren’t needed because President-elect Donald Trump is “sending all the Mexicans back.”
In the wake of Trump’s election in November, reports of derogatory language, harassment and even assault have increased substantially in America’s schools, according to a national survey of more than 10,000 educators.
Now as the nation prepares for Trump’s inauguration on Friday, numerous groups are working to equip student leaders to help their classmates find common ground in an increasingly polarized climate.
Chalkbeat listened in recently in Memphis as six student leaders from different schools and diverse backgrounds talked about how to foster understanding. The discussion was organized by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that trains students of diverse ideologies and identities to examine prejudice together.
The student leaders came together from public and private schools in parts of Shelby County that are both red and blue. They represent ideologies that are conservative, moderate and liberal in a city where nearly one in three people live in poverty and schools have become increasingly racially segregated. Here are five themes that emerged:
Recognize that polarization exists.
Students first must acknowledge that healing is needed, said Khamilla Johnson, a 17-year-old black student at Overton High School.
“There are a lot of people who feel like there’s no need to heal because there’s nothing wrong,” she said. “So, first of all, we have to educate people on the different perspectives of what’s happened, especially coming from the different diversity of America. There are certain groups that have felt attacked during the election, post-election.”
Set a tone that honors honesty and respect.
Leodan Rodriguez, a senior at White Station High School, helped to frame the conversation at his school just two days after Election Day.
In a video of his remarks over the school’s loudspeaker, Rodriguez called on classmates to focus on their similarities in one of the most diverse schools in the city. It was important, he said, to assure students that they could speak out honestly, as long as they do so respectfully.
“From there, so many conversations were brought in different classes with so many groups of students, which I really liked,” said Rodriguez, a first-generation Mexican-American who voted in his first presidential election in November. Before that day, “I felt like there was such a lack of conversation and a lack of exposure to this type of environment where you’re able to speak out and not be necessarily judged for it.”
Among those who felt anxiety at her school was Addie Quinlen, an 18-year-old senior at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, who voted for a third-party candidate. As a white conservative, she felt under attack and ostracized for her beliefs amid the heat of the campaign rhetoric.
“(Students and teachers were) looking at Donald Trump and saying this man is hateful. This man is intolerant. And it felt like everyone was turning around and treating his supporters in the same way,” she said of the day after the election. “Even if you don’t feel like you can’t respect their opinion, you can respect their right to their opinion. And I think my school lost that that day. But hopefully we can regain that.”
A climate of fear and anxiety can have a chilling effect on free speech, said Amal Altareb, a Muslim who attends Central High School. She said that, though most students at her school were upset by Trump’s victory, many would not speak up during class discussions.
“What I didn’t like was in every classroom that I went to, almost the whole class would agree on the same side and I felt like there were some students who disagreed but they did not have enough courage to say I disagree with you because the whole class would attack them,” she said.
Through Facing History and Ourselves, student leaders are trained to facilitate discussion, often setting up “contracts” that include showing respect, being honest, suspending judgment, and not making assumptions about others with different opinions.
Read Chalkbeat’s story on what we saw and heard in Tennessee schools on the day after Election Day.
Identify common goals.
In a divisive climate, students must be reminded that they also have things in common, which can be a starting point for conversation, said Altareb.
“I think a way that could bridge the division in America is to remind everyone that everyone wants to make America great again,” the 16-year-old junior said of Trump’s campaign slogan. “Everyone wants to live a comfortable life where they’re not discriminated against, where they have jobs, good education, just whatever. Everyone wants to have a good life and that’s our common goal.”
Watch after students who are vulnerable.
In an emotionally charged environment, it’s imperative to speak out against discrimination of vulnerable groups, the students agreed.
Rodriguez’s speech, for instance, was in response to reports that students yelled “Go Trump” in the halls of White Station High School in an effort to intimidate Hispanic students.
“On either side, we like to ignore certain groups of people because they’re small or they disagree with us, so we just want to put that out of our minds,” said Ema Wagner, a senior at White Station. “But with learning about different perspectives, we need to stop ignoring other people that are different than us because that’s just a sore that festers.”
Emphasize the value of listening to each other.
While Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton easily carried the vote in urban Memphis, Rahm Bakshi is a senior at Arlington High School in the Memphis bedroom community of Arlington, where Trump received strong support. Noting that his classmates’ political conversation happened mostly online, Bakshi observed that both conservative and liberal students became “echo chambers” of what they heard on social media, rather than seeking to listen to each other.
“In a lot of the mainstream media, I noticed a lot of fear mongering on both sides. That just divides everyone. Because, you know, fear is an emotion. It’s not rational,” Bakshi said. “And I feel like it still does happen on both sides.”
He continued: “It’s not about the side, it’s about the truth. I’d rather believe the truth than the agenda or narrative that someone is spewing for whoever.”
Quinlen hopes she and other student leaders can do a better job of promoting understanding as the nation transitions to a new president.
“I don’t think it’s possible for us to get it perfectly right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve where we are.”