‘You’ve got to be able to talk about it.’ Getting beyond taunts and walkouts after Trump’s victory

Max Hernandez holds a little Puerto Rican flag at a rally held by high school students in Ruby Hill after a multi-school walk-out. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)protest; rally; march; students; ruby hill; trump; politics; election; kevinjbeaty; copolitics; denver; denverite; colorado; latino; hispanic;
Max Hernandez holds a little Puerto Rican flag at a rally held by high school students in Ruby Hill after a multi-school walk-out. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) protest; rally; march; students; ruby hill; trump; politics; election; kevinjbeaty; copolitics; denver; denverite; colorado; latino; hispanic;
Max Hernandez holds a little Puerto Rican flag at a rally held by high school students in Ruby Hill after a multi-school walk-out. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Ann SchimkeChalkbeat

The day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, a student at Northglenn High School wore his “I’m a deplorable” T-shirt along with a Trump hat to school.

At Dunstan Middle School in Jefferson County, a pair of girls put a sticker that said “racist” next to a Donald Trump sign on a door that had been decorated with items representing both candidates.

At Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, where many students raised questions about Trump’s deportation plans, a boy ruefully joked to his soccer coach that the team would have no players next year.

In the aftermath of a long and divisive presidential race, these are just a few of the ways the election outcome trickled into the hallways and classrooms of Colorado schools over the last week.

At some schools in Denver, Boulder Valley and St. Vrain, there were strong visceral reactions — walkouts and public protests against Trump. At others, both before and after the election, there were racist, sexist or anti-immigrant taunts, fueled by the worst of the campaign rhetoric.

But at many schools, the disappointment, relief, worry or excitement that accompanied the election’s surprise outcome unfolded in smaller ways — through classroom discussions, a flood of questions or small acts of defiance.

Among a half-dozen teachers and administrators interviewed about their school’s post-election atmosphere, more than one said students seemed to handle the emotions of the fraught election better than adults.

Mike Hamilton, a civics teacher at the racially-mixed Rangeview High School in Aurora, is one of them. Although he had both Trump and Clinton supporters among his 11th-graders, he saw no animosity between the two sides. Instead there were conversations — about the accuracy of negative ads, the difference between campaign slogans and the work of governing, and the chances of mass deportation.

“You’ve got to be able to talk about it,” he said.

Victoria Bull, a civics teacher at Northglenn High School, said her students had wide-ranging discussions about the Electoral College, the more than 50 percent of white women who voted for Trump and the sense that some students didn’t feel safe anymore.

“They were very thoughtful and civil and just kind of taking it all in,” she said.

As for the boy who wore the “I’m a deplorable” T-shirt — a self-described libertarian who wasn’t a strong Trump supporter in the first place — students in his Advanced Placement government class respect diverse views and were unbothered by his outfit, she said.

The boy later told Bull that he only felt comfortable wearing it because he knew he’d be in her classroom all day to practice for an upcoming civics competition.

Bull — a lesbian whose partner is an obstetrician and gynecologist who performs abortions — is open about her own political views and wore a “Michelle Obama 2020” T-shirt to school this week.

Adams 12 spokesman Joe Ferdani said the district does not have a policy that specifically addresses teachers or staff supporting a political figure in such a way, but “we discourage staff from sharing personal political views while at work.”

At Dunstan Middle School, which serves kids from families from across the political spectrum, there were no post-election incidents other than the sticker on the door, school officials said. Principal Jen Kirksey credits the relative calm to the restorative justice approach she’s put in place over the last year.

As part of it, kids circle up with their teachers every Wednesday morning to share personal stories or perspectives in response to a question. The activity breeds empathy, which now underpins the culture of the school, Kirksey said.

Ina Rodriguez-Myer, principal of the dual language University Hill Elementary in Boulder, also credits school culture and an ongoing emphasis on trauma-informed practices by teachers and mindfulness training for students with helping in the days after the election.

“We’ve been proactive here for a long time, not just about election,” she said.

Nerves were frayed at first. More than half the school’s students are Latino and many are immigrants. One parent recounted how someone in a pickup truck drove through the family’s government-subsidized housing complex yelling, “Go home! Go home!” after the election.

Such stories and the panicked questions that followed prompted Rodriguez-Myer to reiterate the school’s values of diversity and inclusivity. She also created a short online document in both English and Spanish listing a few school and community events parents could attend to get more information.

Soon, dozens of people in the Boulder community were adding resources to the open document — suggestions for how to talk to kids about the election, legal information, immigration fact sheets, curricula focusing on tolerance and racial justice workshops. Since then, the document has been shared far and wide, with advocacy organizations, universities, parent groups and Colorado school districts.

“It has just gone everywhere,” Rodriguez-Myer said. “It makes me a little teary, just how people want to help…They have families within their schools or they know of someone who can benefit from this.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.