Has Donald Trump poisoned the playground? Educators across LA talk of new spike in bullying
Mike Szymanski | November 1, 2016
Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for the LA School Report newsletter.
October was National Bullying Prevention Month, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for LA Unified.
Anecdotal evidence and interviews with dozens of teachers, administrators, parents and students over the past three months point to an increase in school bullying, inappropriate language and public humiliation that many believe can be specifically attributed to the presidential campaign rhetoric. The district also reported higher incidents of bullying in months that coincided with media reports of inflammatory speech.
Recent examples exist from virtually every corner of the second-largest school district in the country:
• Girls in a lunch line in a South Central elementary school were teased with “Miss Piggy” and other weight-shaming phrases;
• High school students in Sylmar fear their parents will be taken away from them if Donald Trump is elected president;
• Students flapping their arms wildly mocked special education students when they lined up for P.E. at a San Fernando Valley middle school;
• A teacher at a charter school who wears a hajib, or headscarf, was taunted with “you’re a terrorist” and “she’s got a bomb,” and a student pretended to point a gun at her;
• Students at an all-girls charter school heard others say that their families will be sent “over the wall” and they will be placed in foster care;
• And just last week, a fight that was supposed to take place at a park near a high school in the Hollywood area was billed as a “Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump” brawl because one student had enough of being persistently picked on by a school bully. Parents heard about the fight and stopped it before it happened.
LA Unified officials said they did not have specific data showing an increase in bullying, but after a public information request, they responded with language from an annual iSTAR incident report released last week: “Incidents were high for the months of October 2016 and February, April, and May 2016. Middle schools reported the majority of incidents.” There were 965 reported incidents of bullying last school year, according to the report.
February, one of the highest-incident months, began with Trump saying to his supporters: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell. I promise you: I will pay for the legal fees.”
May was another spike in incidents at schools. Toward the end of that month, Trump attempted to discredit a Latino judge and claimed he should recuse himself from a case involving Trump University because of the judge’s “Mexican heritage.”
Impact on children
Most of the seven members of the LA School Board have spoken at public meetings about the angry discourse of the presidential campaign, while they said they do not personally receive reports of specific incidents.
In an interview, school board President Steve Zimmer said he was concerned with how such talk affects children. “We have to figure out how this narrative of fear and exploitation affects families and schools,” Zimmer said. “We have to have supportive care for conflicts and hate through wraparound services and restorative justice, and we have to worry about the spillover effect.”
Zimmer said that while walking through a public park recently, he saw a pushy boy dressed in a suit declare “I’m Donald Trump.” Zimmer is concerned about how some of the public discourse trickles down to the children. At October’s board meeting, Zimmer won approval for a resolution “Celebrating California Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month” that noted, “Sikh boys suffer bullying at twice the national rate as other boys.” Just in the past year, the school board passed four resolutions involving bullying.
“It is unfortunate that the national debate of America does not resonate with some of the key values of this district,” said board member Mónica García. “What is tough is to see the increase in stress in children when the target is against ethnic communities or immigrants or women, and that continues to discourage them.”
The 11-year-olds starting off at the district’s first all-girls charter school, GALS (Girls Athletic Leadership School of Los Angeles), have been hearing dirty words directed at them, and that infuriates teacher Kelly Snyder.
“Dismissing this kind of talk as locker room talk makes it permissible for boys to talk like this, and the girls hear these vulgar, harsh words,” Snyder said.
Their school is co-located at Vista Middle School in Panorama City where they are in the middle of school-wide anti-bullying lessons, with signs throughout the campus to be aware of bullying. Because of all that, Carrie Wagner, the executive director of GALS, decided it was a good time to train her teachers on how to deal with the issues. But the girls still face bullying.
“We are at an all-girls school, it’s not what we stand for, so you’d think we wouldn’t have to deal with this, but boys think it’s OK to make fun of girls because Donald Trump does it,” said Hattie Weinroth, 11, who faced some recent bullying. “They want to bring our self-esteem down.”
Her friend Tanya Juarez, who was also bullied, said, “This is a school with all different kinds of cultures, and we are learning to not be racist. But the girl who won the beauty contest is pretty and she won it for a reason and it’s not fair for him to criticize her.” (She referred to Trump calling former Miss Universe Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” for gaining weight.)
Arely Peralta said some of the shaming she faced turned her into a bully too, until teachers intervened and she realized her reactions were wrong. “I felt sad when I was bullied, and I bullied them too,” she said. “A lot more racism is coming out because of the presidential campaign and a lot of rumors and things that are causing bullies.”
Arely said she faced bullying because she was different and said, “Now I feel like Donald Trump is changing America and I am feeling more scared and more insecure if he is going to be president.”
Mya Lopez declared, “Donald Trump isn’t for Mexicans and he wants to build a wall. You can’t make a wall high enough. You can go around it or climb over it. My parents are Mexican and they don’t bring crime. We have been given a new opportunity of life.”
LA Unified doesn’t ask for or require any proof of immigration status by any student or their family. Trump’s immigration plan includes blocking funding to sanctuary cities like Los Angeles. In 1994, Californians passed Prop 187 that initially prohibited undocumented residents from using non-emergency tax-supported services like public education, but the law was found unconstitutional. Yet fears from that time have cropped up again.
Almost in tears, Emily Martinez said, “Other kids are telling me that he will separate me from my parents and we will be foster kids or something. I don’t like the idea of Christmas without them or a year without them.”
Emily said she watched the TV commercials of children reacting to Trump’s speeches. “Donald Trump is criticizing girls and making us feel bad.”
Her fellow classmate Wendy Paz reflected what they were recently taught by their teachers. “Don’t be afraid, let it go, none of it is true,” Wendy advised. “Be yourself, be who you are. Some people have more racism in them than others.”
Abigail Gonzalez, who watched the debates with her parents, said, “I feel bad about it because my parents are Mexican too, and I don’t want anything going on with them. But if we call him racist, then we may be called racists too.”
Muslim teacher is bullied
For 10 years Nanetta Okonkwo taught in LA Unified schools, the past five years mostly in charter schools. She has always worn her traditional headscarf, the hajib, as part of her Muslim religion.
Never — even during the height of the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — has she ever heard name-calling to the extent she has faced in the past two weeks, since the end of the debates. And it has all come from students.
“Four boys called me a terrorist,” Okonkwo said. “They said, ‘You have a bomb’ and ‘You’re a member of ISIS’ and ‘She’s from Iraq.’ I was shocked.”
It happened at a charter school on the Westside, and the next day three girls picked up on the verbal assaults and were also sent to the office. Okonkwo doesn’t want to name the school for fear of being ostracized further. Instead, she transferred as a substitute teacher to another middle school near downtown Los Angeles. Similar things happened.
“A boy passed me in the hallway and said, ‘You’re a Muslim, you’re a terrorist’ right to my face,” she said. “Then I took him to the dean’s office and he said the same thing.” He had heard Trump say it.
Even more chilling, a student pretended to cock, aim and fire a shotgun at her.
“It makes me really angry, the divisiveness that these children have learned,” the teacher said. “It’s frustrating to see that they are learning to oppress someone else.”
Okonkwo was born in Wichita, Kansas. Her father is Nigerian and her mother is a Kansan native with half-German, half-French heritage. They are both Christian. In her late 20s, Okonkwo chose to become a Muslim.
Now, at 46, she said she is disheartened to see the African-American and Latino children feel free to launch insults merely because of how she is dressed.
“Some of their parents were contacted and some didn’t respond or didn’t care,” Okonkwo said. “I was a little disappointed in how the charter school handled the situation, to be frank, and felt that this could have been a teaching moment. I felt like there was no accountability.”
She said she believes it’s directly attributable to the presidential campaign. “Donald Trump is a grown man on TV making fun of people with special needs, saying boys will be boys and making all these excuses,” Okonkwo said. “The kids think it’s cool because he’s on TV. This started happening just after Donald Trump went on again about Syrian refugees not being vetted, and people don’t know anything about any woman wearing a hijab.”
She worries about the occasional student she sees in school also wearing a hijab and possible teasing. “These children can be horrible to someone who is different, and they can be brutal,” she said.
“We really need to step it up on anti-bullying campaigns,” Okonkwo said. “Otherwise we are perpetuating the racism, bigotry and sexism being spouted in the media. We have to break the cycle. Certainly before there’s violence.”
Francisco Navarro says he is definitely a minority at Sylmar Charter High School. He is from a Mexican family, and he supports Trump.
The 17-year-old cannot yet vote like some of his friends, but if he were able to, he’d vote for the man who is advocating building a wall between Mexico and the United States.
“I support Trump,” Francisco said. “I think some of the comments he makes are really unnecessary, but he has some good points. Yeah, we have families on the other side of the border, but we also have laws that we have to follow.”
His family members followed the laws. “We all have families there,” Francisco said. “But if we don’t go by the laws then there’s consequences. It’s what the people want.”
He added, “I am for the wall, I do not have a problem with it. And I don’t feel like all the people coming over are rapists and murderers because they really are not.”
Francisco is part of a senior government class at the district’s newest affiliated charter school. It’s a high school in a predominantly Latino area that also has a significant African-American population.
At a recent chat, along with the school principal, James Lee, the students opened up about their thoughts. Most of them were afraid of Trump becoming president, most of them considered him a racist and most of them didn’t trust the media.
“I’m concerned about the wall,” said Ana Gascon, who is 18 and plans to vote for Hillary Clinton on behalf of her family. “A lot of my family is from Mexico and it bugs me how he speaks about the immigrants.”
An African-American student, Dior Parks, also 18, said she is reluctantly voting for Clinton. “I don’t particularly care that she is a woman, I wouldn’t vote for her just because of that, but she’s better than Trump,” Dior said. “But if Michelle Obama were running I would be very excited about that.”
Dior said she gets most of her news on Twitter, and the high school senior rattled off a list of things she had read about Trump. The last straw for Dior was when she watched TV footage of black people asking for hugs from Trump supporters. “They were really rude to the ones asking for hugs, and that made me feel uncomfortable,” she said. “Seeing that makes me want to get more involved in politics.”
Lee said he was pleased with how candid his 12th-grade students were in the discussion. He said he had not specifically heard about bullying incidents that could be connected to the presidential campaign, but saw how some of the rhetoric seeped into how the students think about and treat each other.
Across town in South Los Angeles, at Dr. Owen Lloyd Knox Elementary School, fifth-grade teacher Danielle Howard has seen a big increase in graffiti and name-calling. Howard has taught for more than 15 years in Los Angeles and noticed obscenities scrawled about Trump in the desks and on the walls. Kids are calling themselves “bad hombres” or “nasty girls,” which was used by Trump in the last debate.
“One girl’s aunt told her that if Donald Trump becomes president, then black people were going to be turned back into slaves,” Howard said. “They know that he’s saying things that aren’t true, because they know that their friend’s mom who is helping volunteer at the school is not a rapist or a murderer.”
But Howard said the children’s worry is palpable, even at the elementary school of 870, which is mostly black and Hispanic. They talk about the news every day and study the election.
“One girl said she had a dream that the police was knocking on the door and taking away parents and leaving kids behind,” Howard said. “Their imaginations are reacting to this fear that is being drummed up. It’s ridiculous, but the fear is real to these kids. These kids are so smart.”
Howard tries to remain objective and non-political, but she said the students are fairly one-sided against Trump, especially while the school was holding the anti-bullying campaign in October.
“They are able to recognize a bully now when they see one, and they have labeled Donald Trump,” Howard said.
When David Graham began as a student teacher at North Hollywood High, it was in 1998 in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal with President Bill Clinton. It was a time when sex talk was prominent in the media like it had never been before.
Until now, of course, when history has repeated itself and then some. Graham now teaches history in the Independent Honors Program at Walter Reed Middle School in Studio City, and he has noted an increase in dirty words being used around campus that could be blamed on the presidential campaign.
“Yucky” is the new word he uses for when an inappropriate word must come up in discussions, especially when a candidate talks about grabbing certain body parts.
“The students don’t know where I stand politically, and I try to keep it that way,” Graham said. “The students are bright, but this is low-end reality TV that meets middle school, and you know there will be unfortunate comments.”
He noted that students today are “more sexualized” than they were when he began teaching, and therefore more sensitive to body image insults and shaming.
Graham, 56, tries to turn it all into a learning tool, using the debates as a reason to go over the Constitution and bring up past presidential speeches.
Graham started teaching as a second career 18 years ago, leaving behind a career as a lawyer. He noted that when bullying issues come up, the administration is fast to react with a school assembly or training session. For example, when there were recent incidents of cyber-bullying and students drawing fascist symbols, the administration held an assembly with an expert to explain why it wasn’t OK.
“We have to be careful to see if children are taking cues from the behaviors they see and if they’re given a license to have bigotry and prejudices and express them like this,” Graham said. “Some of the girls are offended about what they see or hear, but it hasn’t been an open season of middle school boys on the girls. Not yet.”
Graham also notes that this may not be the most vitriolic of campaigns in American history either.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a very heated campaign that involved allegations of interracial affairs, rape and murder. But eventually, they became friends again.
“What we didn’t have is social media,” Graham sighed. “And that is something you can’t keep away from the kids.”
Fear and loathing
Even before the presidential season began, YouthTruth, a national nonprofit group, started a survey asking nearly 80,000 students in 21 states about bullying.
“What we found is surprising and shows a need to talk openly about this,” said Hannah Bartlebaugh of YouthTruth.
The survey shows that one in four students is bullied and that more are physically bullied than cyber-bullied. The biggest reason, 44 percent, a child is being bullied is because of how they look; 16 percent say it’s because of their race, and 14 percent say it’s because they were perceived to be gay or lesbian.
At WalletHub, the personal finance website, a recently released study showed that California ranked 38th in the percentage of bullying that goes on in school. That’s better than the average, and significant since the state also ranks low (38th) in number of psychologists per student in the country.
Another survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed how Trump’s campaign has had “a profoundly negative impact” in the classrooms and has created anxiety and fear among students. Although the survey didn’t specifically ask about the rhetoric of specific candidates, nearly half of the teachers mentioned Trump while about 10 percent mentioned Clinton, who last week launched a “Better Than Bullying” plan calling for $500 million in new federal funding that would go to states that agree to develop anti-bullying plans.
A CNN report noted a different kind of bullying at a diverse middle school in Washington. A Muslim 8th-grader was called a terrorist and a Latino student was told to “go back to the border,” mirroring some of the incidents at LA Unified.
“These are things that we hadn’t been hearing before,” said Debbie Aldous, a teacher at the school. “So what seems to have changed, to me, is the political rhetoric.”
Solutions and hope
LA Unified has been at the forefront of social-emotional learning for the past 25 years, and when a need exists, district representatives can respond with programs, seminars and education, said Lori Vollandt, of the district’s Social Emotional Learning programs.
“What we are trying to do is create a preventative environment of social awareness. Empathy is the bedrock of all social-emotional learning,” said Vollandt, noting that anti-bullying is an important part of their work. “I think there are many people who don’t know we have these resources available in the district.”
Although Judy Chiasson said she has not heard anything specific about bullying being connected to the presidential campaign, as head of the Human Relations, Diversity and Equity division of the district, she said her team is ready to handle concerns and complaints at any of the district schools and has brochures in Spanish, Chinese, Armenian and Korean.
Susan Ward Roncalli, who helps Vollandt with the programs and taught in the classroom for 30 years, said she recalled last year when a Latino student whose father was an immigrant said in class, “Illegals are criminals and should be deported” and that he was looking forward to the wall keeping them out.
“This sentiment caused quite an uproar in class and caused a few of my students who are undocumented to cry,” said Roncalli, who taught in a suburban elementary school.
Another child recently was sent to a principal’s office for drawing a picture of people and writing the words, “No more Mexicans.” When the parent and principal asked where the child got such an idea, Roncalli said, “He said he saw Trump say it on TV so he thought it was OK.”
Board member Mónica Ratliff said she is concerned about how the district responds to bullying. Her staff has collected the procedures and forms that the district uses. The district has anti-bullying information and contracts in both English and Spanish, as well as anti-bullying reports that parents can fill out in both English and Spanish. Through resolutions and additional public statements, the school board doubled-down on anti-bullying programs in the district.
“It is important that we continue to provide a safe learning environment for every child no matter who is our president,” Ratliff said.
Some schools have specific programs targeting bullying. El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills created a chapter of Cool2bkind, a group that focuses on bullying prevention and awareness, started by two students, Zachary Leo and Emily Park.
Near downtown, at Bret Harte Preparatory Middle School, a P.S. ARTS teacher saw the transformation of students’ attitudes who participated in the arts program. Coincidentally, fistfights broke out during a half-hour lunch break when P.S. ARTS was hosting a table in the quad to tell students about their program.
“Each time, dozens of students raced to the fray, cheering the fighters on,” art leader Jennifer Browne said about the school fights. “It was clear to us that the culture at this school was in crisis. A small group of students hung out around our table. They wanted to know what we had to offer and clearly wanted to be part of something different.”
The program presented a performance to the rest of the school educating others about bullying. Browne said, “Given the amount of stress and chaos in their day-to-day environment, we knew that our programming could present an excellent chance for our students to express themselves and build community in a safe, structured, creative environment.” She added, “We must look for the small changes – a student who finally projects their voice on stage, a student who fully participates for one day, a child showing empathy towards another individual.”
At Fourth Fourth Street Elementary School in East Los Angeles, Principal Lupe Carrandi said she has implemented a schoolwide Positive Behavior plan to keep out the campaign negativity.
“We know that the rhetoric has gotten nasty out there, but that atmosphere stops at the doors of the school,” Carrandi said after a recent school board meeting where her school was credited by King. “We emphasize our rules: Be safe, be respectful, be responsible and most importantly be kind.”
The classes showing the best behaviors are rewarded with Bear Buck coupons they can use to purchase items from the school store. The principal grew up in the neighborhood, with immigrant parents, and she said it is imperative that her students and their families be shielded from the negativity.
That kind of negative rhetoric caused some students to transfer from other nearby school districts to LA Unified, which they perceived as more tolerant toward Latinos. The district is 74 percent Latino.
A Latino family came to school board member Ref Rodriguez’s office from a neighboring school district after hearing “derogatory comments similar to what’s been shared in the campaigns.” They told the board member’s office that the students were sharing a YouTube video that repeated the campaign negativity.
“This kind of effect on our children based on the rhetoric from the presidential campaign is distressing, but it’s not surprising,” said Allan Kakassy, a retired teacher on the district’s Human Relations Commission. “We don’t know how deeply this affects the students, and that is why it is so important for the district to keep investing in the social-emotional learning programs.”
Board member George McKenna, who has spoken publicly about the campaign rhetoric since the presidential election began, said, “My schools are not as diverse as others in the district might be, so it’s not like someone is going to come in to one of my schools and say, ‘You all need to go back over the wall.’ That would be a little dumb. But it has worked nicely through the sports teams, for example. I think it’s important that they know that if they come together and play together, they can know they’ve got each other’s backs and they can succeed no matter where they come from or what race they are.”
There is cause for hope, school board member García said, despite the negative rhetoric.
“This district is building an understanding for tolerance and appreciation for multi-culturalism,” García said. “That is a pillar for this district.”
She said she recently met a fifth-grader at Second Street Elementary School who told her that Trump’s negative talk is inspiring the student to go to Washington, D.C., to become a civil rights attorney.
“It is clear that kids have become more excited about wanting to vote,” García said. “They see the historic nature of a woman in this election. It has stirred the Latino community to show them how important it is to register and vote.”