The 2016 Presidential campaign was the most negative, divisive campaign in recent memory. The winning candidate openly threatened groups of individuals based on religious affiliation, race, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and other perceived differences. Citizens of all ages have been troubled by the demonstrated intolerance as well as real and potential threats to these groups. Even as the campaign ended the election elicited not just hateful words but emboldened discriminatory and extremist groups and individuals to target racial, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants and others. All of these angry, threatening rhetorical and actual racist, bigoted acts have contributed to a climate of uncertainty and anxiety among Americans who fear that this movement will impose and normalize intolerant and hate-motivated behaviors against vulnerable populations. Children are foremost among those who are most vulnerable.
In April 2016, during the height of the campaign, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a 45 year old organization that tracks and monitors the activities of hate groups, surveyed public school teachers regarding their observations of their students’ reactions. Over 2000 teachers responded. Their experiences were alarming. Students of all ages had a level of awareness of the positions of the candidates and their supporters, thanks to access to social media, electronic media and adults’ conversations. Over two thirds of the teachers reported that children of color, especially, were anxious, confused and scared about what might happen to their families if Donald Trump won. It was noted that immigrant children and children of undocumented families were stressed and even some African American children worried about being sent back to Africa.
Over all the teachers felt that many students were discouraged and depressed by what they were hearing from the Republican candidate. The problem was compounded by these children’s knowledge that some adults in the schools and fellow students shared the candidate’s views. Teachers saw an increase in bullying linked to the tensions created by the political rhetoric. Since the election, SPLC has documented over 700 incidents of hate-related harassment throughout the country. We’ve experienced some of those incidents, locally. SPLC is replicating this survey post-election.
As educators, we especially shoulder the responsibility to ensure that our schools are safe havens for our students. After the election Dr. Cash and I talked about how to reassure our students, who are apprehensive about their future; how to let them know that we understand that some of them are feeling scared and anxious; that we support them and we value them and are committed to ensuring a safe space for all students. Many of you have read the letter sent to the District community that resulted from our conversations. But, Dr. Cash and I also talked about the next steps. It’s important that our actions not stop with a letter.
The question then, becomes what do we, as educators – parents- concerned adults -- do to help our children navigate the new reality that our country is facing? I think that one of the answers is that we use the events or situations experienced by our students as teachable moment opportunities. Ironically, too many of our students experience bullying and intimidation in their lives. However, using these experiences as teachable moments, we have the ability to engage children in personal understanding of why respect is important in building positive relationships; why civility is important in the process of promoting dynamic dialogue; why being empowered is important in developing decision making, problem solving and critical thinking skills that offer the means for self-protection as well as the capacity to support fellow students who are being bullied. This is not a new idea! In fact, I know that it’s happening in classrooms every day. Just last week, to the credit of the school’s administration and teachers, the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center held a school-wide anti-bullying series of events.
But, now more than ever I think we need to be intentional and inclusive in making anti-bullying a focus of a community-wide endeavor. Two years ago, the District held an anti-bullying campaign to heighten awareness about forms/consequences of bullying and how to confront it; members of the Board of Education, the Mayor, the Superintendent and staff rode the anti-bully bus; and visited several schools throughout the District that shared their bully-prevention programs. I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the students; by their creative responses to bullying and the attention that the District and the City gave this all important issue. I also learned a new word that day. I learned what it meant to be an “Upstander”; an individual who sees wrong and acts. A person who takes a stand against an act of injustice or intolerance; a person who is not a “positive bystander,” that’s the definition of an Upstander.
Each and every one of us can be an Upstander, and consequently a role model for our children. And as such, we become the teachable moments that I children learn from – outside of the classroom. I urge all concerned adults to commit to making ‘Upstander” a word whose meaning becomes an integral part of this community’s vocabulary and visible actions.