Post-election stress isn’t just for grownups.
Right after the Nov. 8 election, reports of conflicts between students over politics, race and religion bubbled to the surface in schools around the nation and in the South Sound.
When it threatened the peace at Liberty Middle School in Frederickson, it surprised some educators.
“As the week progressed, it just seemed different,” said Principal Tom Mitchell, a 30-year education veteran. “I hadn’t seen anything like it before in previous elections.”
The morning after the election, Mitchell was supervising students arriving on school buses when he noticed a group of boys marching down the school sidewalk chanting, “Don-ald Trump!” and knocking into other kids as they went.
Next, he heard about a student taunting another about her race as they passed in the hallway. The girl seemed uncertain whether she should report the incident and worried other students would think she was being overly sensitive.
Mitchell didn’t want his students to feel intimidated about reporting problems. He knew he needed to act.
So the Sunday after the election, he sent email and recorded messages to parents, letting them know what was happening at school.
“We started hearing things at Liberty that we had never experienced before,” Mitchell wrote. “This is the first time I’ve experienced this kind of ugliness.”
Liberty might appear fairly homogenous — and affluent. But nearly half of its roughly 700 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Students at Liberty, like at any school, have “conflicts from time to time,” Mitchell said later in an interview. But since the school opened in 2010, he said, the conflicts have rarely focused on race.
“That’s the environment we’ve grown used to, that we’ve cultivated and supported,” he said.
Liberty is like many suburban schools. From the outside looking in, the school might appear fairly homogenous — and affluent. But nearly half of its roughly 700 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a widely used marker of poverty. The school runs a food pantry that supplies students in need with food they can take home on weekends.
A majority of Liberty students — about 60 percent — are white, according to the most recent state data. More than 14 percent are Hispanic and more than 8 percent are black.
We started hearing things at Liberty that we had never experienced before
Liberty Middle School Principal Tom Mitchell
The boy who hurled the racial taunts was identified with the help of other students. His parent was contacted and got involved right away in corrective action, Mitchell said.
The boys bumping into students outside the buses were sent to the office, where Mitchell explained that supporting a political candidate is OK, but getting physical about it is not.
Still, he sensed the school needed something more than case-by-case discipline.
“We decided we couldn’t be complacent,” he said.
In his email to parents, which went out in English and Spanish, he asked for help:
“Please discuss this with your children. Please encourage them to make school a positive, welcoming place for everyone. If they encounter hatred, encourage them to offer support or look for help. If they are the victims of abuse or negativity, have them seek help from an adult.”
He pledged the support of all members of the Liberty staff.
“This is not about one side or the other politically,” he wrote. “This is about everyone: liberty and justice for all.”
After he sent the message, he worried he might hear from parents who were offended by it. Instead, he said, he received several thank-yous and messages of support.
Liberty is a pretty positive place.
Student Allyssa Vandi
Mitchell called a staff meeting. He wanted to be sensitive to the political views of staff members, knowing the school includes people who supported each of the major party presidential candidates. He urged his team of largely white educators to listen to the viewpoints of the school’s few nonwhite staff members.
Liberty educators vowed to redouble their efforts to teach tolerance.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything super special,” Mitchell said. “I think we’ve got a great staff.”
Assistant Principal Kianee Lee, who is black, heard from students of color who were upset after the election. She let them know she shared their sense of unease.
“I let students talk about their feelings,” Lee said. She told them her door was open any time they needed to talk.
She put together a slide presentation that was shown to students across the school. It highlighted the contributions that Americans from multiple racial groups have made to the country.
Lee said staff members are brainstorming where to go from here and looking at ways “to keep this message going.”
Student leaders are doing the same.
“Liberty is a pretty positive place,” said eighth-grader Allyssa Vandi, who is part of a school leadership class. But she said the election had many students on edge.
She is part of the school’s Positive Climate Committee, which is working on ways to move the focus away from the election-related divisions.
Carter Castro, the student body vice president, is working with students on ways to showcase the diversity of cultures at Liberty. One idea: ask students to bring in objects representative of their family cultures for display case exhibit near the front office.
He quotes Abraham Lincoln’s words, about how a house divided against itself cannot stand.
“There shouldn’t be all this fighting based off of stupid things,” he said. “Everybody needs to be welcome.”