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Election spurring uneasy feelings in classrooms

A classroom in Flint.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

In what used to be a perfect time for a lesson in how government works, the tone of the presidential campaign is creating uncomfortable conversations in many high school classrooms.

With the presidential election focused on the antics, accusations and scandals involving the candidates, some civics instructors say they've faced questions that typically would not be topics of conversation in their classrooms.

And the degrading talk about women and immigrants in the presidential race is making some students uneasy, says biology teacher Frank Burger of Flint Township.

"We have a lot of Muslim students where I teach, and I had a young lady come into one of my classes and she was crying, and I said, 'Honey, what's wrong?'" he relates. "And she just was sobbing so much, she said, 'I'm afraid I'm going to get shipped back to my home country if Donald Trump becomes the president of the United States.' I truly believe the students are listening."

In a survey conducted this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than two-thirds of the teachers reported that some students, mainly children of immigrants and Muslims, have said they're worried about what might happen to their families after the election.

More than half of teachers in the survey said they've seen an increase in uncivil political discourse in the classroom, and some reported hearing students use slurs and make inflammatory statements in regards to another student's gender, race or ethnicity. Burger says the classroom is no place for bullying and harassment, and he works to ensure his students feel safe.

"I reiterate to them, we respect each other's opinions, but we're not going to use any excuse to say that we're going to discriminate or harass or bully someone just because of an excuse," he states. "We don't tolerate that for any reason."

Burger notes that many students are very engaged in the election and he encourages parents to have a conversation with their children about the process of democracy and the importance of making an informed and educated decision when voting.

"Looking at the issues, which candidate best represents your issues and which candidate that you believe will uphold your values and making sure that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing for you," he states.

In the survey, 40% of teachers said they're reluctant to teach about the election.

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