Donald Trump’s campaign and election have added an alarming twist to school bullying, with white students using the president’s words and slogans to bully Latino, Middle Eastern, black, Asian, and Jewish classmates. In the first comprehensive review of post-election bullying, BuzzFeed News has confirmed more than 50 incidents, across 26 states, in which a K-12 student invoked Trump’s name or message in an apparent effort to harass a classmate during the past school year.
In the parking lot of a high school in Shakopee, Minnesota, boys in Donald Trump shirts gathered around a black teenage girl and sang a portion of “The Star Spangled Banner,” replacing the closing line with “and the home of the slaves.” On a playground at an elementary school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, third-graders surrounded a boy and chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
On a school bus in San Antonio, Texas, a white eighth-grader said to a Filipino classmate, “You are going to be deported.” In a classroom in Brea, California, a white eighth-grader told a black classmate, “Now that Trump won, you’re going to have to go back to Africa, where you belong.” In the hallway of a high school in San Carlos, California, a white student told two biracial girls to “go back home to whatever country you’re from.” In Louisville, Kentucky, a third-grade boy chased a Latina girl around the classroom shouting “build the wall!” In a stadium parking lot in Jacksonville, Florida, after a high school football game, white students chanted at black students from the opposing school: “Donald Trump! Donald Trump! Donald Trump!”
The first school year of the Donald Trump presidency left educators struggling to navigate a climate where misogyny, religious intolerance, name-calling, and racial exclusion have become part of mainstream political speech.
These budding political beliefs among some students carry consequences beyond the schoolyard. Today’s high schoolers will be eligible to vote in 2020, and today’s fifth-graders will be eligible to vote in 2024. But even if the wave of Trump-related bullying doesn’t reflect some widespread political awakening among young people, it indicates a more troubling reality: the extent to which racial and religious intolerance has shaped how kids talk, joke, and bully.
“It’s unacceptable and it reflects a wider climate of hate that we’re seeing,” Antonio Lopez, an assistant school superintendent in Portland, Oregon, told BuzzFeed News. Lopez in March announced a plan to personally track racist bullying in his district, citing the importance of snubbing out hateful speech as early as possible.
Lopez said the hate incidents in his district were on his mind when he heard that white supremacist Jeremy Joseph Christian had stabbed three people, two of them fatally, on a Portland train after they intervened to stop his racist rant against two teenage girls, one of them a Muslim wearing a headscarf.
While there are no quantitative studies examining the election’s impact on school bullying, BuzzFeed News conducted the first large-scale nationwide analysis of bullying incidents linked to Trump, reviewing hundreds of reports submitted to the Documenting Hate project, a database of tips about hate crimes and bias incidents set up by ProPublica and shared with other news organizations.
BuzzFeed News reviewed every alleged incident, from early October to late May. The reports spanned 149 schools. Of those, BuzzFeed News was able to follow up on 54 cases through interviews, public statements from school officials, and local news reports. (BuzzFeed News has not heard back from the people who filed the other 95 tips.)
For teachers and principals, the first school year of the Trump presidency brought a new test.
“This is my 21st year in education and I’ve never seen a situation like this before,” said Brent Emmons, principal of Hood River Middle School in Oregon. “It’s a delicate tightrope to walk. It’s not my role to tell people how to think about political policies, but it is my role to make sure every kid feels safe at the school.”
At a time of thick political and racial tensions, and of heightened worries among people of color, what is a teacher to say when a student asks: Why can the president say it but I can’t?
Teachers, like everybody else in the United States, realized at some point in 2016 that this election was very different.
Over her 10 years as a middle school English teacher in Spokane Valley, Washington, Amanda Mead liked to shift her curriculum based on current events. She assigned readings from the civil rights era when protests roiled Ferguson in 2014. In 2012 and 2008, her classroom discussions often turned to the presidential election.
“We’d talk about Bush, Obama, McCain, et cetera, and the kids would just nod their heads,” Mead said. “But as the campaign heated up last year, I started to notice a pretty significant change among my kids. They would say things that I have never heard kids in my school district say. Far more vitriolic.”
She caught a group of white students following a Latino student in the hallway, taunting him with chants of “the wall’s coming!” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!” She overheard kids repeating insults Trump had aimed at Hillary Clinton.
For the kids, there was no escaping Trump. His speeches played on television nearly every night. Every adult seemed to be talking about him — at dinner tables, on social media. He was the central figure of the cultural moment, and he talked like a playground bully.
“It’s a daily occurrence that they hear this language,” said Dorothy Espelage, an education psychology professor at the University of Florida who has researched school bullying. “They’re just parroting back what they hear” — from parents, from Trump, from raucous crowds on televised campaign rallies.
Emmons, the middle school principal in Oregon, didn’t realize how much kids had latched on to Trump’s message until dozens of his students chanted “Build that wall!” during a Halloween assembly after two teachers performing in a skit entered the stage wearing masks of Trump and Clinton. A third of the school’s students are Latino.
“That was the first time that I knew it was going to be a problem at my school,” Emmons said. “Many of our students felt unsafe and disrespected. These words are hateful and scary for them.”
When Emmons talked to some of kids who had chanted, he said he found that “some students had no idea what it meant.” They were simply joining in with the mob. “It’s middle school; it’s what you do because you’re right next to them,” Emmons said. “I really don’t believe that 99% of the kids who were chanting it had any malice or hate in their hearts.”
Kids, like the president, tend to enjoy a good troll.
Recalling an incident he witnessed in which some white students harassed minority students with the usual lines about walls and deportation, Dylan Henderson, a high school sophomore in Atlanta, said, “Maybe a few of them truly were passionate about those beliefs, but the others seemed to just be doing it to incite a response, to see what will happen.”
To Emmons and other educators, activities and discussions that once seemed innocently enriching had suddenly become fraught. Teachers grappled with how to talk to students about the election — or whether to talk about it at all. One fifth-grade teacher in North Carolina, who requested anonymity, said her school told teachers to avoid discussion about the candidates and focus on the political process when talking about the election. “I don’t think anyone has known how to handle it or approach it,” the teacher said.
Parents were similarly caught off guard by the racist bullying, which many had not encountered.
A week before the election, students at a high school in Florien, Louisiana, held a mock election in the lunchroom. Nearly all of the 200 or so students voted for Trump. When the vote count was read out, some students began asking who had voted for Clinton. One boy, a Latino 10th-grader, raised his hand. “Go back home!” somebody shouted. “Do you have your working papers?” somebody else said. A “build a wall!” chant broke out.
“He didn’t want to go back to school,” said the boy’s mother, who requested anonymity. “He said he didn’t feel safe.”
Having lived in the small town all his life, the boy had gone to school with the same classmates since kindergarten. Most of them are white, yet “this was the first time he felt his race was an issue,” his mother said. “I had to explain to him that this is how some people see the world.”
In suburban Dallas, one mother said her sixth-grade son came home from school on Election Day and told her that some classmates had taunted him and two friends on the playground that morning: “Heil Hitlary,” one boy said; another said, “one million of your lives is worth less than 30,000 deleted emails.” After the boy recalled the incident, he asked his mother, “How did they know we’re Jewish?”
The bullying in schools is part of a larger wave of hate speech, vandalism, and violence that has occurred across the country within the past year. In the four months following the election, Jewish cemeteries were defaced in at least three states, and at least three mosques were set on fire. In Kansas and Washington, white men shot brown men because they thought they were Muslim, killing one and wounding two more. In New York City, a white man who fatally stabbed a black man said he was on a mission to kill many more. A BuzzFeed News investigation earlier this year tallied at least 18 hate crimes and bias incidents from November to March in Oregon alone.
With so many recent examples of racist beliefs leading to violence, the verbal abuse in schools stands out not just as an example of kids testing boundaries, but as a possible window into a disturbing future.
On Election Day in Silverton, Oregon, around three dozen students gathered in their high school’s parking lot, holding Trump signs and waving American flags. When Latino students passed by, teens in the crowd shouted “Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow!” and “Tell your family goodbye!”
At a Philadelphia prep school, four white students posed for a photo while holding pictures of the Confederate flag and Donald Trump. In the weeks after the election, pro-Trump messages, alongside racist pejoratives and symbols, were spray-painted on walls at schools in Newtown, Pennsylvania; Suwanee, Georgia; and Brookline, Massachusetts.
In Millersburg, Pennsylvania, a Latina high school student broke into tears when more than 30 classmates chanted “Trump!” at her. In York County, Pennsylvania, a group of high school students holding Trump signs marched through the halls; one shouted “white power.” In Coppell, Texas, a Latino high school student found on his desk a goodbye card with a note suggesting he would be deported and ending, “Make America Great Again! Adios!”
On a school bus in a suburb of St. Louis, a white teen said to a black teen, “Are you ready to get back on the boat now that Trump is president?” In a fifth-grade classroom in Greensboro, North Carolina, a Latino boy cried after another student told him, “Donald Trump wants to send you guys away. He doesn’t want you here.” At a high school volleyball game in Archer City, Texas, and at high school basketball games in Jefferson Township, New Jersey, and San Diego, white students chanted “build the wall” at Latino students on the other team. In Nebraska, at baseball games against Schuyler High School, which is 80% Latino, opposing students brought Trump signs and shouted taunts about deportation and building a wall.
The known incidents of Trump-related school harassment form an incomplete list. Missing are the cases that adults never hear about, the ones lost to the closed ecosystem of adolescent social life.
One Los Angeles County seventh-grader begged his mom not to tell the principal about the anti-Semitic harassment he was getting from a Trump supporter in his class. The bully was a popular kid. “My son didn’t want to deal with the social consequences,” his mother said. “He was really adamant that we didn’t out this boy.”
Another mother, from the San Francisco Bay Area, learned of a post-election bullying incident when her teenage daughter mentioned it in passing. “She didn’t want to talk about it,” the mother said. “She didn’t want to make a big deal. I was upset. I wanted to go to the principal. But she didn’t want that.” The girl, a 10th-grader, was new at her school and feared making trouble.
When reports did make it up the chain, many principals and superintendents, including in Archer City and Philadelphia, responded swiftly, with public statements or district-wide emails condemning the bullying — stands that drew praise from parents. In Warrensburg, Missouri, after a white student held a Donald Trump sign at a high school basketball game against a team whose players were mostly black, the superintendent issued an apology, calling the act “inappropriate and insensitive toward our opponents.” The school board in Highland Park, Texas, formed a committee to look into the reports of racist harassment after the election. In San Diego County, the school board passed a resolution vowing to maintain a safe climate for students of all races. In a few cases, such as in Silverton, Oregon, and Millersburg, Pennsylvania, students were suspended.
Often, kids themselves have made efforts to counter hate incidents at their schools. High schoolers in Atlanta started a group aimed at promoting tolerance. Two middle schoolers in Oregon put together a video showing dozens of classmates stating what they “believe in” — “respect” and “equal rights” were among the more popular lines. In New Albany, Ohio, students took to social media to pressure administrators to remove graffiti of racist words and Trump’s name at their high school. When the Latino boy from Florien, Louisiana, returned to school the day after the mock election, “his friends banded around him and the other children who were bullied,” his mother said.
But, at a time when the line between political speech and racist hate seems increasingly faint, responses to bullying sometimes brought a backlash.
After a white third-grade boy chanted “build the wall” at a Latina classmate at a Louisville elementary school, the teacher and principal gathered the class and told them the boy’s actions had been racist. Not everybody was pleased with this lecture.
“Parents got mad that the school said it was racist,” said the mother of another boy in the class.
Indeed, as some educators learned this past school year, “build the wall” is not an easy phrase to police. It is, after all, a campaign slogan of a major party candidate, chanted by millions of Americans at rallies across the country, and a primary policy objective of the person elected president. How does a teacher explain to a student why the phrase is unacceptable in the classroom without being accused of political partisanship?
After the chant at the Hood River Middle School Halloween assembly, Principal Emmons put it this way in a letter to students: “This statement makes many of your fellow students feel badly because it has been used by politicians to threaten deportation of immigrants and threaten Americans of Mexican heritage. Many students at our school are from families of recent immigrants and these words are hurtful and scary for them.”
He called a school-wide assembly to address the incident, ordered a school-wide writing assignment about it, and organized a festival on campus that showcased games and food from around the world.
Several parents complained that the school’s response was heavy-handed. They accused the principal of suppressing political speech. Recalling those meetings, Emmons said, “We discussed whether a public school has the ability to limit speech that’s used in the national arena. Their viewpoint was: If you thought this way, it didn’t make you a bad person; that it was just about improved border security.”
The same argument emerged in May when a high school in North Carolina confiscated yearbooks after administrators discovered that one student’s senior quote was “Build that wall.” A message on the district’s Facebook page called the quote “inappropriate.” Hundreds of people left comments, mostly criticizing the decision:
“This is a violation of the student’s rights!!!”
“What is so ‘racist’ about the quote?”
“Quoting the POTUS is never inappropriate!”
For some families, the end of the school year brings hard choices. One mother from a suburb outside Richmond, Virginia, said that she and her husband, both US citizens born in Mexico, sent their son and daughter to a local Catholic school “thinking we’ll have the same values as the families there.” Things were smooth for years, until November, when their son was 12 and their daughter 14. “After Trump won, we tried to tell our kids not to worry, but then we started hearing a lot of hate,” she said. A classmate at the school, which is predominantly white, called her son a “Mexican churro.” When her son scored a goal at a soccer game at recess, another classmate said, “Don’t worry, he’s going to be deported pretty soon.” There were frequent “build the wall” jokes.
She informed the principal and the parish priest, she said, but they took no action. When she went to the mother of one of the boys who had targeted her son, the woman defended the comments, saying that the boy was merely “expressing his political point of view.”
The mother and father are now considering transferring their kids to a public school. ●