This is no time to be a bystander

In February students at a high school basketball game in Merrillville, Indiana, produced cutout images of US presidential candidate Donald Trump and directed chants of “Build that wall” at the opposing team and fans, who were heavily Hispanic. Two months later, according to CNN a Wisconsin high school girls soccer match turned ugly after fans from Elkhorn High School, which is 85% white, shouted similar racial slurs at the team from the Beloit Memorial High School, a majority of which was African American or Latina.

Random events? The Southern Poverty Law conducted a survey at the end of this school year of approximately 2,000 K-12 teachers and found that the US Presidential Election has emboldened students to engage in bullying and racial harassment and has generated high levels of fear for large numbers of students.

  • More than two-thirds of the teachers reported that students – mainly immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims – have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.
  • More than half have seen an increase in uncivil political discourse.
  • More than one-third have observed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment.
  • More than 40 percent are hesitant to teach about the election.

If you are reading this blog you likely share our commitment at No Bully to compassion and inclusivity in our schools. We care because we see the pain that students suffer when our schools don’t take a stand when bullying and exclusion occur. These are not abstract values but practical necessities to creating a bully-free culture, giving every student equal access to education and building the social and moral intelligence they will need to play their role as citizens in adulthood. Most of the educators that we have heard from about the presidential election use words such as “anguished” and “sickened”. Their upset transcends any party or religious affiliation or how they were raised, and explains why voices both on the left and right are protesting that this is not the America that we know and love.

This election has presented teachers with a dilemma that should never have been asked of them. Do they follow their usual rule against discussing their own politics and maintain neutrality or should they reassure children who “beg [them] not to vote for Trump because he will send their parents out of the country”? Many respondents to the Southern Poverty Law survey indicated they would abandon neutrality. “When the classroom is filled with brown faces, teachers told us, they felt a moral imperative to speak out. “I am less neutral,” a Jersey City, New Jersey, high school teacher volunteered. “I want to reassure my students I don’t buy into racist rhetoric.”

There is an urgency to this moment. We have a presidential candidate who is abusing the power of his platform and by any definition is engaging in behaviors that in school we would call racial and religious bullying. His words are being internalized and mimicked by students across the nation. Values of compassion and inclusivity, which generations of educators have painstakingly built within their schools over many years, are under attack. It is a reasonable prognosis that the damage from this will extend far beyond the close of this election.

This is not a time to be a bystander. It is time to speak to our children and students about why we value everyone, whatever their skin color or religion. But I know you already do that. It is time to reinforce compassion and inclusivity as guiding values for our school communities, so that when anyone crosses the threshold they immediately sense that yours is a caring and welcoming school. And, whatever your party, it is time to speak to those who represent you, to let them know the harm that this election is causing to the next generation, and to ask them to take a stand for compassion and inclusivity in how they campaign and govern this country.