Election is a tough teaching assignment for schools

Maureen Feighan, and Stephanie Steinberg

School districts throughout Michigan are walking a fine line between honoring free speech and making sure children feel safe in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory this week.

A caught-on-video cafeteria incident at Royal Oak Middle School on Wednesday underscored the challenge facing teachers, principals and administrators as students — and their parents — react to Trump’s election.

A Mexican-American student, Josie Ramon, 12, recorded students chanting “Build that wall” in reference to Trump’s vow to secure America’s border with Mexico and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. She said the chanting made her and a friend cry. Her video — posted to Facebook — was viewed more than 5 million times by Thursday.

Royal Oak Middle School students chant 'Build that wall'

“It’s so unbelievably wrong,” Josie said. “I had no tolerance of it so I recorded it.”

The Royal Oak Police Department responded to the school as a precaution with plans to keep a presence at the school all day. Superintendent Shawn Lewis-Lakin said the district is continuing to address the issue: “We are working with our students to help them understand the impact of their words and actions on others in their school community.”

North of Lansing, administrators were looking into a demonstration at DeWitt Junior High early Wednesday morning involving two, possibly three, students who laid down in the hall to “build a wall” when a teacher spotted them.

“The teacher saw them lie down, and she said ‘Guys, what are you doing?’ And they said, ‘We’re going to build a wall.’ ” She said come on, get up. That’s not right,’ ” Superintendent John Deiter said.

Deiter said it happened before school, no students actually were obstructed and the incident was likely overblown on social media.

“Our children are reacting to what they’ve seen in the national media and hearing in their households for the last 18 months,” Deiter said. “There’s something deeper here. I don’t think it was egregious as it was reported on Facebook. ... We need to help educate our children and help them process their world. It’s been a confusing time for kids.”

Teachers, principals and counselors handled students’ stormy emotions in different ways, but their first response was to stress unity and respect for others’ opinions.

Troy High School teacher Ryan Werenka had students watch the post-election speeches by Trump, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

“It was probably not the most exciting day, but I wanted them all to see that the sun came up and the world is still spinning,” he said. “It also prevented kids from openly gloating or from breaking down in tears. I encouraged them to not retreat back into apathy, regardless of their opinion on the election results.”

Districts with high populations of foreign-born students tackled the issue of deportation fears.

At Hamtramck High School, which has 1,000 students, including some from countries such as Yemen, Bangladesh and elsewhere across the Middle East, students expressed “a lot of disappointment and a lot of fear,” said counselor Caitlin Drinkard. “We had students concerned about being deported and people in their families being deported.”

During the many conversations she’s had in the last days and months, Drinkard reassures fearful students that “they have rights.”

“We’ve tried to tell them that they have constitutional rights as citizens of this country, that the Constitution protects them, that they have a right to speak out, they have a right to speak up for what they believe is true and right,” Drinkard said.

Trump won Michigan on Tuesday, but by a narrow margin. Clinton won eight counties out of 83, including the largest: Oakland and Wayne.

At Detroit’s Clippert Academy, a diverse middle school in southwest Detroit, fifth-grade teacher Emma Howland-Bolton on Wednesday asked her class of 29 students to write “friendly letters” to Trump, congratulating him, highlighting his positive qualities like his “passion and ambition,” but also openly expressing fears.

“Even if some of the things that he does are really concerning to a 10-year-old from the Latino community, we identify those things in our letters and ask him to really connect with his own humanity, reach deep into his heart and see each of our students as human beings,” said Howland-Bolton, who plans to send those letters to Trump.

Last week, Howland-Bolton organized a mock presidential election for the 500 fifth- through eighth-graders. Clinton won with 379 votes; Trump got 29 votes.

A lot of students stayed up to 3 a.m. Wednesday watching the actual results and came to school “very upset,” she said.

At Roeper, a pre-K through 12th-grade private school in Bloomfield Township, several teachers decided to have small discussions instead of holding their regular class on Wednesday.

Senior Ellie Moskowitz, 18, said her government teacher asked the class to share either a hope, worry or question.

“We had a lot of different dialogue back and forth, and people expressed how they were feeling and how this election was going to affect them,” Moskowitz said.

The school population tends to lean more liberal, and “a lot of people are disappointed,” she said. “It kind of felt like everything was moving in slow motion yesterday in school. It was a very concerned, sad and worried feeling.”

At Dearborn Public Schools, which has 18,300 students and a large concentration of Muslim and Arab-American students, district spokesman David Mustonen said they’ve encouraged principals and teachers to have age-appropriate conversations about the election in classes “where it makes sense.”

“You don’t start a discussion (about the election) in seventh-grade math class,” Mustonen said. “That’s not part of the curriculum, and that’s not part of that studies.”

In classes where it is appropriate, Mustonen said how the election is discussed is left up to individual teachers.

Hillel Day Head of School Steve Freedman sent a letter to teachers, advising how to respond if the election comes up at the Jewish private school in Farmington Hills. He also talked with the seventh- and eighth-grade classes about the results and shared examples of other elections in American history that appeared “really terrible,” he said, “but the country survived, and people moved on.”

One example came from personal experience. “In the 1980 election, people were so afraid of Ronald Reagan,” he said. “They were sure that if he was going to become president, he was going to cause a nuclear war.”

Freedman said he stressed to the students that America “is a great country” and that “in democracies, there can be loud, noisy, sometimes mean spirited campaigns, but when elections are over, there’s always a peaceful transfer of power, and more often than not, people come together.”


Twitter: @mfeighan

Staff writer Candice Williams contributed.