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Why school climate matters with a President Trump

Student safety at risk with harassment on the rise

This election has been a wake up call: sadly it has woken up and given permission for more overt and public forms of harassment modeled and condoned by president-elect Trump. In the three days since the results were announced, I have read news stories about a student handing deportation orders to students of ‘various ethnicities’ at his school, a teacher telling a student Trump should deport their parents, a non-Muslim student writing a note to a Muslim teacher telling her to go hang herself with her hijab, and a male student reaching under a 10 year old girl’s dress and stating “If the President does it, I can too.” Sarah Burris at the Raw Story has documented 137 other similar incidents, many of them in schools and college campuses. What does this mean for the next four years and what can parents and educators do?

First, we have to be able to put these behaviors in context. I have been researching and writing about biased harassment in schools since the early 90’s, and never have I seen so many documented incidents covered in the media in such a short period of time. Although decades of research show that students of color, girls, and LGBTQ students experience elevated amounts of bullying and harassment in schools, it has never been in the public consciousness like it is now. Racial, sexual, and homophobic harassment continue to be significant problems that interfere with students’ safety and sense of belonging at schools, and we have an opportunity -- and a need -- now, more than ever to do something about it. Student safety, relationships with adults, and a sense of belonging at school are important factors that impact student academic achievement according to a recent meta-analysis of 78 school climate studies since 2000. If we don't take a strong stand against bullying and harassment, students disengage from our schools and the adults who should be protecting them.

Data from a national survey recently released by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network on school climate indicate that although 9/10 students report feeling safe at school, 17.7% of students reported missing one or more days of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable and a majority of students experienced incidents of biased harassment. The most common forms include:

  • verbal harassment based on appearance or body size/type (50.9%) and actual/perceived race/ethnicity (30.3%).
  • About a fifth of students reported verbal harassment based on gender expression (21.9%) or actual or perceived sexual orientation (19.4%).
  • Fewer students reported verbal harassment based on gender (18.1%), actual or perceived religion (18.0%), and actual or perceived disability (12.7%).

GLSEN also found that higher levels of in-school victimization were related to lower educational aspirations, higher rates of school discipline, and greater likelihood of missing school. California schools also report similar issues for LGBT students. In an analysis of the California Healthy Kids dataset, the Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools reports much higher levels of missing school and suicidality among LGBT youth, and lower levels of safety and belonging.

Source: InsAnonymous/Pinterest with permission

On the positive side, there are reports of teachers doing amazing things to ensure their students feel safe and supported at school. Jezebel posted a story summarizing some of the powerful work dedicated educators are doing in their classrooms post-election to promote dialogue, acceptance, and learning. There is also a movement (with some backlash) to adopt the #safetypin that started being worn in the UK post-Brexit to take a stand against xenophobia. Although some people argue that wearing a safety pin is too small of a gesture and won’t actually do anything, I disagree. As a queer person who has spent her adult life seeking signs of safety and affirmation, seeing rainbow flags, ally stickers, and safe space posters make a difference to me. The public signal that this person, this classroom, or this office is a place where I can expect to be affirmed, supported, and protected if the need arises, matters. The #safetypin is meant to show that the wearer will be an “upstander” in anti-bullying language; someone who will stand beside you, interrupt, intervene (if safe to do so), provide support, and report if hateful words or actions are directed towards anyone -- particularly marginalized groups in our society. Knowing these allies are out there and making them visible can help. So if you choose to wear the #safetypin, I encourage you to make sure you are willing to do these things. You can also share this image so others know what it means to you.

Liz Meyer
Source: Liz Meyer

In addition to wearing a safety pin and interrupting biased harassment, educators can design and lead lessons on issues of diversity, equity and community engagement. Teaching Tolerance has a great searchable database of lessons for any grade-level and all content areas that is a great place to start. For other lessons on LGBT-people and people with disabilities visit this site. I designed it with a former student/current teacher to help California educators implement the FAIR Education Act, but can be used by anyone. This image is of some of the elementary teacher candidates from CU Boulder showing an elementary math lesson they designed on the "Trail of Tears" as part of an assignment to help students learn to think about issues of justice and equity through the math curriculum. Parents can also have supportive conversations with their children using some of the ideas offered here.

So, in this tumultuous time as we all learn to make sense of a new reality under President Trump, I encourage parents, educators, community leaders and all those tasked with supporting and protecting youth to be ever more attentive to issues of bullying, harassment, school climate and student safety. Regardless of who you voted for, I hope we can all agree that every individual should feel safe, affirmed and valued when they show up at school every day. After all, school attendance is compulsory, so we better make damn sure that if we require kids to be there, that we are doing all we can to protect them and foster a healthy environment for learning and growth while they are in our care.