Teachers help students process presidential election results and understand political divide

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Schools look for ways to help students find common ground.

The raw emotions being voiced by young people across the country after the presidential election are spilling into school hallways and classrooms, prompting administrators and teachers to search for ways to help students cope with the political and social fallout.

In the Baltimore region, racist graffiti has been scrawled across bathroom walls in suburban schools, frightened immigrant students have sought reassurance that they would not be deported, and principals have instructed staff and students to act with civility and respect.

"With such an emotionally charged election, it is natural that our students are entering our building and bringing in what they hear," said Hope Baier, coordinator of Baltimore County Public Schools' office of school counseling. "We have to have these really raw discussions."

Even a superintendent has entered the fray. When Dallas Dance retweeted a message about caring for nonwhite students after President-elect Donald J. Trump's stunning victory last week, politicians and parents lambasted the Baltimore County superintendent.

Educators said they are trying to encourage calm and reasoned discussion. They want to help their students make sense of a deeply polarized electorate while encouraging them to understand and respect the views of classmates with different backgrounds and political perspectives.

Thousands, including many young people, have staged protests in cities nationwide since Trump's election. That has brought a backlash from conservatives, who say that the nation needs to unite behind Trump and that his supporters are being unfairly characterized as racist, misogynistic and xenophobic.

Teachers are expected to remain politically neutral, but educators said they cannot ignore the fallout from a presidential campaign marked by debates that singled out Latin American immigrants, Muslim refugees and black communities, and caused anxiety among some students from those groups.

"It has been a very emotional week for a lot of students," said James LeMon, principal of Wilde Lake High School in Howard County. "There are obviously two different opinions on the election and the outcome. We are going to have an outlet for student voices."

LeMon said he plans to offer small groups of students the opportunity to gather in the school cafeteria for guided dialogues starting this week. Seated at round tables, students will be able to discuss issues while a teacher moderates.

Atholton High School in Howard County has been roiled by an incident in which a white student took a picture of herself in blackface and flashing a peace sign, and posted it on Facebook, stating: "I'm finally a n— —er."

Elsewhere in Howard County, administrators reported "inappropriate" graffiti on Murray Hill Middle School's building. They declined to release details of the message, only saying it could be described as racially or religiously intolerant.

And in Harford County, a racist sentiment was written across the bottom of a flier announcing a December blood drive at Fallston High School. It stated: "P.S. NOT FOR N— —RS."

School counselors and psychologists said distraught students should be given the chance to vent their feelings and help with channeling any confusion and anger in a positive direction.

Shreya Hessler, a child psychologist in private practice, said teachers and parents can help foster a healthy discussion by sharing their own feelings.

The youngest children have some of the most difficult and insightful questions, she said. For example, she said, they may ask why the adults can't get along, or why can't they sit down and talk to one another.

She said children, who are expected to listen to teachers and work with fellow students, can have difficulty understanding the divisive nature of American politics.

Older children can learn to advocate for change, even in very small ways, she said. "Are there things that can be done to make your voice heard?," she asks children. "Are you willing to hear the person on the other side?"

Teachers said they are endeavoring to give students the space to express their views in a constructive way. The conversations have taken place in hallways, in forums after school and among small groups of students.

Many said this is a teachable moment.

Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose released a statement encouraging dialogue in schools about the checks and balances in government and "what it means to live in a diverse and inclusive society."

Carroll County administrators reminded teachers to remain politically neutral and encouraged them to facilitate a conversation if students had questions or wanted to discuss the election results.

Baier, in Baltimore County, said schools aren't just teaching academic subjects; they are also focused on social emotional learning. She sees the election as an opportunity for schools to teach students how to cope with disappointments.

"What we know is that all voices need to be heard and respected," she said, adding that students need to learn to disagree respectfully.

Some teachers are digging into how the U.S. government works and the checks and balances that keep the American president from being the country's sole authority figure.

On the morning after Election Day, social studies teacher Rashawna Sydnor said an African-American student asked if he would be sent to Africa when Trump becomes president. She told him he has rights as a citizen of the United States.

After getting several more questions from scared and confused students, Sydnor dropped her lesson plans and decided to teach students about the branches of government, the importance of voting, and the Electoral College.

She also showed students parts of a documentary about the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Ala., to the state's capital as part of a campaign to gain voting rights for black people.

The lessons are paying off and her students seemed much calmer Monday, she said. Students are now discussing the attitudes of Trump supporters. "Not everybody who supports him have these negative attitudes toward people of color," she told them.

Steven Johnson, a social studies teacher at ConneXions, a West Baltimore charter arts school for students in grades six through 12, had been teaching his students about immigration the week of the election.

Many of his students had not had much contact with people from other countries, so Johnson decided to take the class across the city to visit Patterson High School, where half the student body is made up of students who recently arrived in this country. The students from the two schools had plenty to discuss.

Salam Gebremichael, 16, told two middle school girls about how she balanced water on top of her head when she was just 10 years old in Sudan.

Daisha and Kelsey Hummer, both 13, asked her why she left her country and how she ended up in Baltimore.

"We are Christian," Gebremichael said. "In Sudan they kill all the Christians."

At the end of the visit, Ahchaadbarkayakyah McNeill, 12, another ConneXions student, said he wanted to go to high school at Patterson so he could learn new languages from the other students. He also had a new view of the city where he lives.

"The way I see, it is poverty and violence," McNeill said of Baltimore. "The way they see it — they like it here."

Some students have joined the post-election protests; others have staged their own. One evening last week, a few dozen high school students gathered at the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon. They held hands and chanted, "Love trumps hate!" and "United we stand, divided we fall!"

The students — from Baltimore School for the Arts, City College, Polytechnic Institute and Western — said they opposed Trump's views on many issues.

"We decided to have this rally to remind ourselves and our classmates and anybody in our community that we still have a voice," said Abby Pelton, 18, a senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts. "We can say no to Donald Trump's policies if we disagree with them, and we will."

"It's also about asking everyone in America to come together and rally as a people," said Daniel Imhoff, an 18-year-old senior from Baltimore School for the Arts. "We are so divided right now."

Towson High School student Aislinn Bratt, who's also the student representative on the Baltimore County school board, said the election got students talking to each other.

They're also taking more of an interest in how the government operates and how foreign and domestic policies are set.

"The message that many are responding to the election with is one of love and acceptance ... that America is home to all different people, regardless of their race, religion, gender, or political views," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

iz.bowie@baltsun.com

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