Understanding the Two-Part Trump Effect on America's Schools

Increased Hate and Bias and Fear and Anxiety

A boy seated with his head down at school symbolizes the Trump Effect of increased hate and bullying, as well as fear and anxiety, on America's schools.
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A 10-day surge of hate crimes followed the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented nearly 900 incidents of hate crimes and bias incidents, most committed in celebration of Trump's win, in the days following the election. These incidents occurred in public places, places of worship, and at private homes, but across the country, the largest proportion of incidents—more than a third—occurred in the nation's schools.

Zeroing in on the problem of Trump-related hate within U.S. schools, SPLC surveyed 10,000 educators from across the country in the days following the presidential election and found that the "Trump Effect" is a serious nationwide problem.

The Trump Effect: Increased Hate and Bullying and Heightened Fear and Anxiety

In their 2016 report titled "The Trump Effect: The Impact of The 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation's Schools," SPLC reveals the findings of their nationwide survey. The survey found that the election of Trump had a negative effect on the climate within the vast majority of the nation's schools. The research reveals that the negative aspects of the Trump Effect are two-fold. On the one hand, in most schools, students who are members of minority communities are experiencing heightened anxiety and fear for themselves and their families. On the other hand, in many schools across the nation, educators have observed a sharp uptick in verbal harassment, including the use of slurs and hateful language directed at minority students, and have observed swastikas, Nazi salutes, and display of Confederate flags. Of those who responded to the survey, a quarter said that it was clear from the language students used that the incidents they observed were directly related to the election.

In fact, according to a survey of 2,000 educators conducted in March 2016, the Trump Effect began during the primary campaign season. Educators who completed this survey identified Trump as an inspiration for bullying and a source of fear and anxiety among students.

The increase in bias and bullying that educators documented in the spring "skyrocketed" in the aftermath of the election. According to reports by educators, it appears that this side of the Trump Effect is found primarily in schools in which the student population is majority white. In these schools, white students target immigrants, Muslims, girls, LGBTQ students, disabled kids, and Clinton supporters with hateful and biased language.

Attention to bullying in schools has increased in recent years, and some might wonder if what is being called the Trump Effect is simply run-of-the-mill behavior among today's students. However, educators across the country reported to SPLC that what they have observed during the primary campaign and since the election is new and alarming. According to educators, what they have witnessed in the schools where they work is "an unleashing of a spirit of hatred they had not seen before." Some teachers reported hearing openly racist speech and seeing racially inspired harassment for the first time in careers of teaching that spanned multiple decades.

Educators report that this behavior, inspired by the words of the president-elect, has exacerbated already existing class and racial divisions within schools. One educator reported witnessing more fights in 10 weeks than in the previous 10 years.

Studying and Documenting the Trump Effect on America's Schools

The data compiled by SPLC were collected via an online survey that the organization disseminated through several groups for educators, including Teaching Tolerance, Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching for Change, Not in Our Schools, the American Federation of Teachers, and Rethinking Schools. The survey included a mix of closed- and open-ended questions. The closed questions offered educators the opportunity to describe changes to the climate in their school after the election, while the open-ended ones gave them the opportunity to provide examples and descriptions of the kinds of behavior and interactions they had witnessed among students and how educators are handling the situation. The data gathered through this survey are both quantitative and qualitative in nature.

Between the 9th and 23rd of November, they received responses from 10,000 educators from across the country who submitted more than 25,000 comments in response to the open-ended questions. SPLC points out that, because it used a purposive sampling technique to gather the data—sending it to selected groups of educators—it is not nationally representative in a scientific sense. However, with its large nationwide set of respondents, the data paint a rich and descriptive picture of what is happening in many of America's schools following the 2016 election.

The Trump Effect by the Numbers

It's clear from the results of SPLC's survey that the Trump Effect is prevalent among the nation's schools. Half of the educators surveyed reported that students in their schools were targeting each other based on which candidate they supported, but this goes beyond teasing. A full 40 percent reported hearing derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslim students, immigrants and those perceived as immigrants, and at students on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation. In other words, 40 percent reported witnessing incidents of hate in their schools. The same percentage believe that their schools are not equipped to deal with incidents of hate and bias that occur so regularly.

The survey results show that it is​ an anti-immigrant bias that is at the center of the Trump Effect on America's schools. Of the more than 1,500 incidents that SPLC was able to categorize, 75 percent were anti-immigrant in nature. Of the remaining 25 percent, most were racially motivated and racist in nature.

Types of incidents reported by respondents:

  • 672 reported hearing threats of deportation
  • 476 reported hearing references to "build the wall"
  • 117 reported hearing the N-word used as a racial slur
  • 89 reported that Black students were told to "go back to Africa"
  • 54 reported presence of swastikas on campus
  • 40 reported references to the Ku Klux Klan
  • 31 reported seeing the Confederate flag
  • 20 reported references to a return to enslavement
  • 18 reported references to "p*ssy" (as in, "grab her by")
  • 13 reported references to Nazi and/or use of the Nazi salute
  • 11 reported references to lynching and nooses

How School Demographics Filter the Trump Effect

The SPLC survey revealed that the Trump Effect is not present in all schools and that in some, only one side of it manifests. According to educators, schools with majority-minority student populations are not seeing incidents of hate and bias. However, they report that their students are suffering from increased fear and anxiety over what the election of Trump means for them and their families.

The Trump Effect on majority-minority schools is so severe that some educators report that the students in their schools appear to be suffering from ​a trauma that hinders their ability to focus and learn. One educator wrote, "Their brains can literally handle a fraction of what students could learn in these same classes in the previous 16 years I have taught them." Some students at these schools have expressed suicidal ideation, and in general, educators report a loss of hope among students.

It is in schools with racial diversity that both sides of the Trump Effect are present, and where racial and class tensions and divisions are now heightened. However, the survey revealed that there are two types of schools where the Trump Effect has not manifested: those with overwhelmingly white student populations, and in schools where educators have intentionally cultivated a climate of inclusion, empathy, and compassion, and that have established programs and practices in place for responding to divisive events that occur in society.

That the Trump Effect is not present in majority-white schools but prevalent among those that are racially diverse or majority-minority suggests that race and racism are at the heart of the crisis.

How Educators Can Respond

Together with Teaching Tolerance, SPLC offers some informed recommendations for educators on how to manage and mitigate the Trump Effect in their schools.

  1. They point out that it is important for administrators to set a tone of inclusion and respect through school communications and everyday actions and language.
  2. Educators must acknowledge the warranted fear and anxiety that many students are experiencing, and develop and implement plans for responding to this particular form of trauma and make the school community aware that these resources exist.
  3. Raise awareness within the school community of bullying, harassment, and bias, and reiterate school policies and expectations for student behavior.
  4. Encourage staff and students to speak up when they see or hear hate or bias directed at members of their community or themselves so that offenders are made aware that their behavior is unacceptable.
  5. Finally, SPLC warns educators that they must be prepared for a crisis. Clear policies and procedures must be in place and all educators within the school community must know what they are and what their role is in carrying them out before a crisis occurs. They recommend the guide, "Responding to Hate and Bias at School."
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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding the Two-Part Trump Effect on America's Schools." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/trump-affect-on-american-education-system-4118208. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, August 1). Understanding the Two-Part Trump Effect on America's Schools. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/trump-affect-on-american-education-system-4118208 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding the Two-Part Trump Effect on America's Schools." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/trump-affect-on-american-education-system-4118208 (accessed June 2, 2023).