School Climate Matters More Than Ever In Trump's America

Back view of a group of high school students walking down the hallway and talking
Back view of a group of high school students walking down the hallway and talking

A 10-mile stretch of highway connects my current hometown to the town where I grew up and attended school. While making the drive last week that I have made hundreds of times before, I spotted an unusual and disturbing sight. A large pickup truck fitted with an oversized, freely waving Confederate flag crept beside me in the typical traffic-filled flow of the road. I gazed in disbelief and distress. In four years of living in the south, I had never seen such a blatant display of this symbol, and had never imagined I would see one in my diverse New Jersey community. I wondered if signs like these were emboldened by the rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and if they would disappear after the majority of Americans rejected his hateful rhetoric and lack of vision.

I tend to be an action-oriented person, and believe that in most situations silence is permission, and that to permit is to promote. The man's freedom of speech may guarantee his right to display this symbol of hate, but I felt an obligation on principle to register my disapproval. My first instinct was to roll down my window at the next bottleneck and call out through the open passenger window to his truck, from one millennial to another. What would I say? I fought the urge to raise a middle finger and meet one symbol of intolerance with another. I wanted to scream. Heart racing, I peered in the rear view mirror at my 4-month-old son sleeping peacefully, simultaneously feeling awash in peace and anger.

That day I was thankful to not have to explain this symbol of hate to my son, to not have to find the careful words to say why some of his classmates and their parents had voiced support for a person who said such hateful things and made such threatening promises. The man in the truck looked to be about my age, and I imagined a future where his son is in school with my son. In the coming years, I will have to face the same dreaded challenge of explaining and comforting that so many parents and teachers faced the morning after the election. I will have to hope that my son's school is an inclusive and equitable safe space in a country that may not be.

Now that the votes have been counted, it appears that hateful rhetoric and abusive behavior is permissible to just about half of the populous that voted for Trump. By no means do I believe that all Trump supporters all subscribe to the xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist comments and ideas that Trump spewed during his media circus of a campaign. Now that the chips have fallen, I hope those who overlooked his troubling actions and the real violence they have caused will speak out. I hope they will demand respect for our highest office and for the ideals of our diverse and inclusive nation. I hope that the gravity of the office transforms Trump into a new reality character, one who still may "tell it like it is" but one who is willing to sideline the extreme expressions of hate that garnered support from fringe extremist groups and are truly dangerous. I hope the office impresses Trump with a renewed sense of responsibility to unite people, and to uphold the rights and freedoms that have always made America the world's greatest nation.

The character of Donald the candidate cannot define the character of this country, but the task of challenging and dismantling his rhetoric will start at the local level, in the groups that serve as the sites of our daily interpersonal interactions. With my son's future in mind, I believe the most important site of this work is in our schools.

On social media I have seen so many examples of desperate and defeated parents trying to find ways to reassure their children about our new leader, and what his election represents about our values. These parents have written about tearful daughters who are worried about Trump's violence towards women, about sons who fear that their friends will be forced to leave their homes, about the safety of their children of color.

After the difficult breakfast conversations of November 9, children of parents who were pleased with Trump's victory will go to schools and join classrooms with students who have absorbed the uncertainty and fear felt by their parents. Our local organizations and educational institutions will be the front lines of combatting messages of hatred through continued conversations and interventions to foster inclusion.

Our schools must create environments where all members are welcome in spirit and practice, supporting conditions under which all children have an opportunity to receive an excellent education. To do this, schools must take the pulse of their community, and can best do this by assessing school climate. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Education Association have pointed to a recent uptick in school-based bullying behavior due to the "Trump Effect." There has not been enough research to determine if this is the case. Going forward, the best sources of evidence will come from observations of behavior and climate in individual schools. Each student body may experience the impacts of the recent campaign in a different way depending on its specific social context and characteristics.

Fortunately, recent anti-bullying efforts have recognized the importance of data-driven approaches to improving school climate. The federal Department of Education and many state departments of education have created free school climate surveys, available online, to enable schools to begin uncovering and diagnosing local issues. Each school can use these data to design targeted interventions to improve inclusion and foster values such as civility in the school setting. This civility will need to extend to the digital space, and civility is what we must demand together of our new commander in chief.

In the meantime, we must dry the tears of students and assure them that we will protect them from all forms of violence and discrimination. We must engage in school climate improvement efforts that will build institutions where our children can feel acceptance, belonging and safety within a broader society that has condoned messages of exclusion and hate.