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Has Trump Killed Political Discourse in the Classroom?

Fearful of the potential for bitter debate around the president and his policies, school administrations around the country have resorted to shutting down student discourse.

For years, students in the freshman literature class at the small Los Angeles charter high school where Ruth teaches debated current events through the prism of fiction. The classic To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, sparked lively discussions about economics, race, and the use of the N-word. During these dialogues, Ruth would often play devil's advocate with her students—roughly 75 percent them Hispanic—challenging them to think about differing viewpoints. The exercise proved effective: Many of Ruth's students felt empowered to express themselves and to talk about their own experiences with racism.

That all changed when Donald Trump was elected president. On November 9th, 2017, Ruth, along with the school's other faculty members, received an email from the principal, advising that teachers abstain from discussing the election—or contemporary politics in general—in the classroom. The email explained that any student with concerns related to the election results was to be directed toward the school psychologist and social workers.

"The email specifically mentioned that we weren't to discuss Trump," says Ruth, who asked that her real name not be used. "As soon as the email went out I immediately felt like my job was on the line if I said anything political in any way. [The principal] was supporting Trump supporters, and said they were being bullied because of their political beliefs; but I know that a lot of other students were very upset too."

The night of the election, Ruth received two emails from students expressing their fears of a Trump presidency, and a desire to discuss those anxieties in class the next day. Four other teachers at the school told Ruth they received emails from students on election night.

"In prior elections nothing was said, and there were no concerns. We've never been told not to discuss politics in the classroom," Ruth says.

Across the country, teachers are refraining from discussing the election results with their students, because of either self-censorship or an administrative directive. In an online survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center of over 10,000 K-12 teachers just after the election—distributed via email by a number of teaching organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Teaching Tolerance; as well as via the SPLC website—46 percent agreed with the statement, "I'm hesitant to teach about the election results."

The survey also asked for descriptions of election-related bigotry or harassment, to which one teacher responded: "Is it possible to discuss politics or even social justice issues in a middle school classroom without incurring the wrath of parents? How do I remain neutral, and should I even try?" Another teacher wrote: "I want to quit my job. I am scared to talk about history or say anything."

"I immediately felt like my job was on the line if I said anything political in any way."

Those responses mark a disturbing shift in post-election sensibilities, according to Maureen Costello, the director of the SPLC's Teaching Tolerance campaign. "Normally teachers are enthusiastic about teaching elections. In my professional experience, I've never seen this degree of angst about teaching political issues," she says.

To be sure, this pall over political speech in schools predates Trump, going all the way back to 2009, when some parents objected to classrooms airing a back-to-school message from Barack Obama. Though it was George H.W. Bush who began the practice of taping a back-to-school message in 1991 (to universal approval, no less), right-wing websites and talk shows raised objections to Obama's message, and some conservatives (notably Glenn Beck) accused Obama of trying to indoctrinate students with a partisan and socialist agenda. Tim Pawlenty, then-governor of Minnesota, said the planned speech was "disruptive," "uninvited," and should not be forced upon the nation's school children; Jim Greer, Florida's GOP chairman at the time, called the speech an "invasive use of power"; Republican Oklahoma state Senator Steve Russell said it "gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality." Though schools were never required to show the video, conservative parents eventually created an opt-out movement in numerous states, including California, Georgia, Connecticut, Georgia, Colorado, Illinois, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. As a result, many schools either stopped showing the messages or allowed students to opt-out.

Parents are again wielding their power when it comes to how their children learn about politics in schools. The day after the election, Suki Highers, a high school sociology teacher in Fayetteville, Arkansas, asked her students to pen a letter to Trump.

"Students were feeling very emotional and I was really unsure how to talk about it." Highers says.

Highers wrote a prompt on the board instructing the students to write a letter either expressing support or concern, in accordance with their feelings. This was nothing new; Highers often has her students write letters to elected officials.

In the class of 17- and 18-year-olds, about 40 percent of the students were supportive of Trump, 40 percent were not, and 20 percent "had no idea," according to Highers. "The exercise was mostly cathartic, because it was such a strange atmosphere and no one felt comfortable talking that day," Highers says.

Within the hour, the assistant principal was questioning Highers about the assignment. Highers assumes that students who were not supportive of Trump discussed their letters when they left the class, and other teachers erroneously surmised that Highers was having kids write hate mail to the president. Once the administrator saw the prompt on the board, he said there wasn't a problem.

Nothing further happened until January 19th, when ABC news ran a story that featured some of Highers' students reading their letters. The response was swift and harsh, but it didn't come from the Fayetteville community—it came from strangers on social media.

"I was eaten alive by both sides," Highers says. "Generally, the liberals attacked the students for their views, and the conservatives directly attacked me. People who claimed to know me said things that were completely slanderous. In 10 years, I've never had my professionalism questioned."

Highers says the incident was a great learning experience for her students, but it made her more circumspect about what subjects she approaches in class.

"I'm not silenced, but I am definitely more cautious," she says.

Teachers are also reaching out to their local unions about the issue, according to Rocío Inclán, senior director of the Center for Social Justice at the National Education Association.

"I've had personal conversations with educators who say, 'My principal says I can't talk about the presidency because it's creating too many problems,'" Inclán says. "Can I talk about these things? Most of the teachers we've talked to are going ahead and talking about it in a way that is appropriate for that classroom and the age group."

She says that it's the professional duty of teachers to teach civics within the prescribed curriculum, but adds that students will connect lessons back to them and their personal issues and reality, with or without teacher-led discussion.

"I think absolutely it's wrong that teachers would feel fearful and can't talk about current events and what the president is saying," Inclán says. "It's a tremendous challenge and it shouldn't be this way, but we're living in these times."

Often, the challenge goes beyond navigating a school's policy on teaching civics. Even attempting to discuss politics in the classroom from a purely unbiased position is trickier than it seems, according to Meira Levinson, a former public school teacher who is now an education professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

"Teachers try really hard to stay non-partisan," she says, "but because Trump has been shifting partisan boundaries, it's much harder for teachers to feel confident, and for administrators, parents, and students to feel confident they they're teaching both sides of the issue."

The new reality is a growing concern among teachers. At the International Baccalaureate Approaches to Teaching and Learning conference in Detroit in February, attendee Sarah Pancost says the hot topic was how teachers are faring under Trump.

"I'm not silenced, but I am definitely more cautious."

"All the international teachers were fascinated with the American teachers," says Pancost, the coordinator for her large public Michigan high school's International Baccalaureate program.

Ironically, even as Pancost and her colleagues were discussing the issue of censorship in their classrooms, they were told by one facilitator, Richard Hood, not to discuss politics during the conference. Hood is an education consultant who spent 25 years teaching in a high school.

"I started the session by making the statement, 'This is a politics-free zone'; and I did that because there is so much heated and hyperbolic rhetoric in the United States. It would have distracted from our purpose," says Hood, adding that it was the first time he's made such a rule.

For all the hand-wringing about the problem, no one seems to be offering a concrete solution. Instead, there appears to be an ad hoc approach, and the level of political discourse a student experiences in the classroom may depend on the local political climate, and the teacher's willingness and ability to resist attempts to stifle debate.

The SPLC's Costello adds that, based on discussions among education organizations, foundations, and public policy groups, she expects to see a renewed interest and calls for civic education.

"Because part of civic education involves being able to discuss and critically understand current events, expect to see programs on news literacy. These have already started, with folks from Teaching Tolerance to the New York Times Learning Network and many others offering content on teaching about fake news and how to judge the quality of information," Costello says.

Hood advocates circumventing the rules, to teach values without delving into the political realm.

"In my teacher trainings, I encourage teachers to consider what material they're presenting kids," Hood says. "If we're looking to help balance the negative thinking echo chamber and represent the best parts of ourselves, we should look to commencement addresses, eulogies, and speeches, which create the attitude that we are not just complaining, but standing up for our values on a daily basis. It's a mind shift from judgment to curiosity.”