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Commentary

Presidential campaign rhetoric affecting school children

Jack Lessenberry

Richard T. Cole, who most people know as Rick, is a remarkable man who’s had several careers, sometimes simultaneously. I was first aware of him when he was press secretary and chief of staff to Governor Jim Blanchard in the 1980s.

Later, he was a senior executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and worked with Mike Duggan back when the man who became Detroit’s mayor was overhauling the Detroit Medical Center.

But Rick Cole is also an academic with a doctorate who was a professor and department chair at Michigan State. He did some serious writing and research on child abuse, and even served on a Federal Centers for Disease Control task force.

And he contacted me the other day to alert me of a new epidemic of child trauma going on this year, something that was the focus of a study this spring by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The highly respected center, founded by the legendary Morris Dees, exists, as its motto says, “to fight hate and bigotry and seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.”

This year a whole lot of hate and bigotry have been on display in the current presidential campaign, most of it stemming from one candidate. The man who now seems certain to become the Republican presidential nominee has promised to deport every person who is in this country illegally, and to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.

The Poverty Law Center did a massive study on how a phenomenon they call “The Trump Effect” was affecting teachers and students. They surveyed more than two thousand teachers and found the effects on them, their students, and their ability to learn was immense.

In their words, “our report found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color, and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.”

Many minority students, who don’t exactly understand what “illegal alien” means, fear being deported. This is true not just of Hispanic children but many Muslim and black students as well. There has also been a noticeable increase in bullying and harassment of minority students.

Many are scared. In Tennessee, the study found a frightened Latino kindergarten student who asks his teacher every day “Is the wall here yet?” In Oklahoma, an elementary school teacher said that his students were terrified and believed that a President Trump would deport them – “and none of them are Hispanic; all are African-American.”

Naturally, teaching in such an atmosphere of fear isn’t easy. On top of that, teachers face an anguishing dilemma. Do they dare to speak out, and possibly risk losing their jobs for partisanship? According to the study, more teachers than ever are simply ignoring the campaign, whereas they traditionally would use it as a real-world civics lesson.

Some teachers worry over whether to take a stand. One candidly said she would keep her mouth shut, because she needed her job. But a Michigan high school teacher who has never been political before said “I feel it’s my duty to speak out against ignorance.”

Dramas like this are playing out in America’s schools this spring. And as with the lead poisoning in Flint, the long-term effects may take years to assess.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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