Harassment in schools skyrockets after election, teachers report

Hate crimes, racism reported post-election
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Story highlights

  • 90% of surveyed educators said school climate was negatively affected by the election, a new unscientific report said
  • Four out of 10 said their schools don't have action plans to deal with incidents of hate and bias

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)In the days following Donald Trump's presidential victory, students in Kansas chanted, "Trump won, you're going back to Mexico," to students from other countries, according to a high school teacher in a suburban community within the state.

In Oregon, a high school teacher photographed vandalism in the boys' bathroom, which mentioned the KKK and used the n-word.
    In Tennessee, a black student was blocked from entering his classroom by two white students chanting, "Trump, Trump," according to a high school teacher at the school where this happened.
    And, in Georgia, a 12-year-old white male student saw an "X" on another white student's paper and proceeded to draw a swastika on his paper, according to a middle school teacher at the school. "And our administration is telling us not to talk about it," the teacher said.
    Those are just a few of the examples given by more than 10,000 educators, 90% of whom are teachers, who responded to an online survey sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is dedicated to reducing prejudice and improving relations among school children across the country. The organization has been critical of Donald Trump following comments from the candidate it characterized as fueling racism and bigotry. The educators were asked to answer a series of questions about the climate at their schools following the presidential election.
    In the first national snapshot of what teachers are observing, nine out of 10 educators who responded to the survey said the election has negatively impacted students' behavior and mood. Forty percent said they have heard derogatory language used against students of color, Muslims, immigrants and other students based on gender or sexual orientation.
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    "We are still daily experiencing the affects of the outcome," said Lindsey Polkl, a fifth-grade teacher in Minnesota. "My students have begun playing a game called 'Trump's Coming,' in which one non-Hispanic student yells 'Trump's Coming' and all of the Hispanic students need to hide."
    "There have been more fights between students as well as students toward teachers, a direct result of the anxiety our students are constantly feeling," Polkl said. "Daily we discuss and answer questions about the hate they see spewed across the internet and within their community, about what is true and what is not true."
    In all, there were more than 2,500 reports of "negative incidents" of bigotry and harassment that can be directly tied to the rhetoric of the presidential campaign, according to the report, entitled "After Election Day: The Trump Effect." These incidents include posting graffiti such as swastikas and comments by students saying something along the lines of, "Better pack your bags. You're going to be deported," said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance.
    This new survey is not scientific and does not represent a random sampling of teachers across the country. It was disseminated to teachers, staff and other educators by Teaching Tolerance through a link on its website and across social media, and was also shared by other education groups.
    It stands to reason that teachers and educators who are witnessing problems were the ones more likely to respond. Still, the survey results do paint a picture of the anxiety that is being felt in some classrooms around the country.
    "If I had to say, looking at the results, does it skew in some way, I would say that it skews toward people who teach some of the large numbers of immigrants, vulnerable students," said Costello. "Those are the people we really heard from because I think those are the schools that are most affected and clearly people who didn't think there was any problem going on probably didn't feel as compelled to answer the survey."

    Hateful harrassment up, say advocates

    Nationwide, there have been more than 867 incidents of "hateful harassment" in the first days following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center says. In a press conference Tuesday, Richard Cohen, the center's president, said he fears those incidents are under reported.
    "These incidents of hate occurred in schools, on public streets and parks and in retail establishments. People were even targeted in their homes," said Cohen. "These incidents have been ugly. And time after time the perpetrator has invoked Mr. Trump's name. The level of hate that has been unleashed is unprecedented."
    "Our report also documented about 20 incidents against Trump supporters," added Cohen. "And we would repudiate those acts as well."
    In the "After Election Day" report, a "very small minority" of teachers said the election has not affected their schools. Most of the teachers who felt that way came from schools that were predominantly white, with few students of color or immigrants.
    "Truly it hasn't had an impact," wrote a middle school teacher in Utah. "Because I talk about these things in class, I have been able to see what little impact there is. Colleagues haven't seen anything."
    But 80% of the educators who responded said they have observed a heightened anxiety on the part of some students, namely immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and LGBT students. In some cases, the anxiety lead to thoughts of suicide.
    "In a 24-hour period, I completed two suicide assessments and two threat of violence assessments for middle school students," a Florida middle school counselor reported in the survey. "This was one week after the election... students were threatening violence against African Americans. Students were suicidal and without hope. Fights, disrespect have increased as well."
    In Tuesday's press conference, Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group with community ties throughout the country, said a call with their affiliates backed up the Teaching Tolerance survey.
    "What were they seeing in those first days after the election?" asked Murguía. "They told us of countless incidents of harassment, verbal and physical taunts and most importantly, many students contemplating taking their own lives. Everything the teachers reported is collaborated by what we are hearing from our affiliates."

    Heightened anxiety for minority students

    "The takeaway message is first of all that school administrators and school board members and anyone who has to do with education has a crisis on their hands," said Costello. "If you're talking about at least a quarter of students -- and it's estimated that a quarter of students in American schools are immigrants, or the children of immigrants -- suffering trauma, that is going to have quite the impact over the course of the year.
    She added that "there's certainly been a breakdown in school culture and I think many schools are now ripe for incidents."
    One of the teachers who responded to the survey, who didn't want to share her name publicly or the name of her school for fear of retaliation, told CNN that incidents of harassment and vandalism were left unpunished at her school.
    "There was no investigation as it was determined it would be impossible to know who committed these acts," she said via email. "Many incidences are unreported or under reported, as there is a fear of retaliation. This is an area of the country where most adults voted for, and avidly support, Trump."
    Another teacher who responded to the survey, a high school teacher in Kansas who reported that students were chanting to the English language learners that they would be sent back to Mexico, believes the total number of negative incidents across the country is probably much larger than has been publicly reported so far. She says teachers are not able to report incidents directly to the press meaning many of them are never revealed to the public.
    "We're supposed to keep everything in house," said the teacher who also didn't want to use to use her name, saying school policy forbids her from independently talking to the press. "That's pretty standard for most districts and most schools. If there's a problem, you take care of it internally but you don't go out to the press with it."

    Hostility caught 'a lot of people unaware'

    Schools were not prepared for what unfolded following Trump's unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton, some teachers said.
    "I don't think that they anticipated in any way what kids were going to say because for the most part, our schools are very diverse," said the teacher in Kansas. "It's not something we deal with anymore. It's not like the '50s, so this reactionary stuff going on just caught a lot of people by surprise."
    While two-thirds of respondents to the survey said that administrations have been "responsive" to what's been going on at their school, four out of 10 said they didn't think their school had a real plan of action to deal with incidents of bias and hate.
    The Kansas high school teacher said her school, and others, could use better resources, including more training for teachers, administrators and staff.
    "I think a lot of people thought we were in the post-racial era and they didn't expect this going backwards kind of behavior," she said. "This kind of hostility just really caught a lot of people unaware."
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    As for what caused the hostility, she believes it's what students saw on TV during the presidential campaign and what they're hearing at home. "I think it's the dark underbelly of this country. It wasn't socially acceptable to be like this for a long time."
    Since the incidents in the days following the election, however, things at her school have really calmed down. "A week and a half ago, it was like, 'Oh my God,' " but since then, the school has gotten proactive, she said.
    "Teachers are out in the hall, (the) administration's out in the hall, security's out in the hall," she said. "Our kids know that if anything happens to anybody, we will act upon it. We will pull security footage if we have to but everybody here needs to be safe."