Thursday, August 13, 2020
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Protests and bullying at an Iowa City H.S.

Today’s post-election bigotry, documented in the New York Times, comes from a place that’s about as American as a place can be: West High School in Iowa City.

Students at West High School sit in to protest hatred and bigotry (student newspaper)

Among the behaviors reported since the election are these:

  • A Muslim girl was called a terrorist during the lunch period.
  • A student wondered aloud if a Latina student who was absent one day had been deported.
  • A boy told a 15-year-old natural-born American citizen wearing a hijab, “Go back home.”

The school is about 40 percent minority, which is a bit higher than a typical Iowan high school, and takes pride in its diverse community of students and staff. Staff at the high school, in fact, reportedly encouraged students to speak out, even if that meant walking out of class to make their voices heard. Some critics thought that was an overreaction, but we pass no judgment on that quality of student protests.

The election of Donald Trump to the office of president of the United States has changed the pride in diversity somewhat, reflecting an increase in bullying seen at many schools across the country from both proponents and opponents of his presidency.

The school “is a different environment now,” the Times quoted a 16-year-old student as saying, and the quote was confirmed on the school paper’s website. “I feel very upset and afraid for my friends. People are using the election as an excuse to discriminate against each other openly.”

The incidents in Iowa City aren’t isolated by any means. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking thousands of episodes like this since the election. Schools are the most common site for the increase in bullying, since adults tend to filter or temper their reactions and kids just let it all out.

“It’s impossible to wall schools off from the rest of society,” the paper quoted Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, a program of the SPLC, as saying. “It’s just seeped into the culture. Kids are hearing it at home and they’re amplifying it.”

Students aren’t just hearing it at home, though. Teachers have spent years and years telling kids they’d be safe from bullies. Our legislatures have passed laws to protect kids from all forms of bullying. Now that Mr Trump has equated the protection from bullying with political correctness and even expressed some hate-filled or racially charged sentences during his campaign, all of that prior work is being thrown out the window.

When students see the president-elect and their parents express this hateful speech, they tend to turn their filters off and express that same hateful speech at inappropriate times. We can’t be sure whether they have hateful thoughts or they’re just parroting what they’ve heard from their parents and Mr Trump. But one thing is certain: the hate genie has been let out of the bottle.

Jesus makes visible a love open to everyone—nobody excluded—open to everyone without bounds. … Nothing and no one remains excluded from this sacrificial prayer of Jesus. (Pope Francis, weekly general audience, April 6)

Just as hate can be learned, so can love. We as teachers should turn our energy from a drive to prevent hate—now a seemingly impossible goal, given the example set by the president-elect on the campaign trail—to a drive to sew love.

I realize setting a good example would be the best way to sew love and Mr Trump isn’t likely to set that example for Americans. But I look at that as a challenge for educators to teach that protecting students from bullying isn’t the same thing as providing them with “safe spaces” or demanding “political correctness” from citizens. Will we respond by rising to the challenge, or will we allow the hate so far shown during the campaign, against immigrants and those of non-Christian religions, to persist and fester in our society?

It remains to be seen how Mr Trump will deal with Mexican immigrants and Muslims after he takes office. Watch what he does with policy very carefully, but ignore the hate and bigotry he espoused during the campaign, in favor of love.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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