Kansas And Missouri Teachers Brace For The 'Trump Effect'

Dec 7, 2016

LuAnn Fox teaches English at Olathe Northwest High School. She says there's been a change in the way students interact since the presidential election.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

Electing a new president is usually not a cause for great alarm in schools.

But teachers say Donald Trump’s election is causing students to turn on one another and pitting teacher against teacher.

On Wednesday, Olathe North High School Principal Jason Herman sent a letter to parents saying, "We have had several incidents in which students were harassed based on their race and/or ethnicity."

Herman called the behavior "intolerable" and promised swift action by the administration.

He repeated the same thing to students in an announcement and added, "In these difficult times it will always seem like it is getting worse before it gets better," according to a transcript provided by the district.

The Southern Poverty Law Center conducted an online survey, admittedly unscientific, with 10,000 teachers responding, and found what they call the "Trump effect."

Ninety percent of teachers said they’ve seen a “negative impact on students’ mood” since the election.

Half said students were targeting each other based on whether they supported Trump or Clinton.

“One student said, 'I wish you were Mexican so that when Trump is elected you could get deported,'” says Maddie Burkemper, who teaches fourth grade at Little Blue Elementary in the Raytown School District. “I’ve had an uptick in the amount of threats that I’ve seen from kids, like, 'I’m going to get you later,' which has happened before but just not quite as frequently.”

Little Blue is pretty diverse: 54 percent of students are African-American and about 70 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch.

But the Trump effect seems to be widespread.

LuAnn Fox teaches at Olathe Northwest High School, which is 78 percent white with very few disadvantaged students. “I don’t think that they view themselves as that different each other," she says. 

But Trump's win seems to have brought out what differences there are.

Fox says there’s been a change in how students interact since Trump's presidential campaign launched.

There are 24 kids in Fox's AP English class, two are African-American. The class is cheery and engaged, but Fox says under the surface, things just aren’t the same.

“One student is saying, 'I’m really kind of fearful, and I’m a little bit scared maybe for my family or my people.'" And another student, being like, 'You just don’t just understand,' as opposed to listening and asking any kind of questions.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center survey also suggests that students are talking more openly about racist symbols like swastikas, the KKK and Confederate flags.

Trump's election has had one effect unique to the Kansas City-area: the safety pin issue in Shawnee Mission.

While the district hasn’t outright banned staff from wearing safety pins, it’s strongly urged them not to do so.

Jan Bombeck is the librarian at Ray Marsh Elementary in the Shawnee Mission district. Despite what the district wants, she's wearing her safety pin. “I feel like I stand with the children who are vulnerable and scared for any reason."

But other teachers said the safety pins, which Bombeck and other staff wore, were a protest of Trump’s election, and they complained to the district.

Before those complaints, the district had to deal with two teachers, who displayed a Confederate flag in class to apparently celebrate Trump’s election.

Bombeck and others say they’re not going to give up their safety pins.

“I think I would take advice from people I trust in the district, like the NEA (National Education Association), and I feel like I trust the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to look at the big picture and see what we want to do as a group, people who are wanting to wear these pins,” she says.

Now, the ACLU is involved and ready to sue if Shawnee Mission bans safety pins.

How will the Trump effect play out?

Nobody knows, but as inauguration day approaches next month, many educators are on edge.

Sam Zeff  covers education for KCUR and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.