Our Kids Don't Feel Safe at School Right Now: How Parents Can Change That

Julie Ryan Evans

school bullyingiStock.com/fstop123

"Build the wall, deport them all!" That's what students at Sullivan West High School in Lake Huntington, New York, chanted in the cafeteria the day after Donald Trump was elected -- as they built a "wall" of chairs around a seventh grade boy who has autism. His mom says he had been very involved in the election and feels he was targeted for not being behind our new president.

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In Jeffersonville, New York, a sixth grade girl who supported Hillary Clinton was left in tears when, the day after the election, she and her biracial friend got off the bus at school to chants of "Hillary for prison" and pointed, vehement calls for the wall. 

In a New Jersey town just outside New York City, a 13-year-old girl was taunted for months by boys at school for her support of Hillary Clinton. After she attended the Women's March on Washington with her mother, things got worse. "She and a couple of her friends finally reported it to their guidance counselor after these kids said my daughter's friend, an Asian-American, should 'go back where she came from,' and made really inappropriate, humiliating comments about my daughter's 'boobs and butt,'" her mom tells CafeMom. "Because, obviously, that kind of talk is now part of the political discourse." 

Dr. Deborah Offner, a clinical child psychologist in Boston, says the hateful behavior crosses the political aisle too. "I have also observed and heard about aggression and antagonism toward students who identify as Trump supporters, by students who believe that Trump supporters are, by definition, racist."

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If you spend any time on social media, watching or reading the news, or just interacting with people in general, it shouldn't be a huge surprise this is happening. The 2016 election cycle has pushed tensions higher in this country than many of us have seen in our lifetime. Politics has always stirred emotions, but this election unleashed unprecedented ugliness, and our kids are suffering for it. 

The frightening landscape

A recent survey from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) paints a disturbing picture of the new reality youth across the country are facing. For example, of the 50,000-plus students ages 13-18 interviewed, 70 percent said they have witnessed bullying, hate messages, or harassment during or since the 2016 election, and overwhelmingly the incidents were related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and immigration status. Almost half said they felt nervous most or all of the time during the past 30 days.

One 18-year-old from Illinois shared with the HRC:

People on my school's bus were talking badly about the LGBT community and black people, as well as a specific male-identifying friend of mine who wore heels, calling him a 'tranny,' a 'f*ggot,' and 'n*gger.' They also related it to the election, stating that Trump is going to help so that 'the f*ggots in the locker rooms can't be there to be pedophiles and stare at us.' 

The reason why isn't too difficult to discern. "Kids are influenced most by their parents," says Carole Lieberman, MD, psychiatrist and author of the upcoming book Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror. "If parents are prejudiced and use demeaning words when talking about minorities, kids pick up on this and it gives them the green light to be demeaning, as well." 

Offner says in Boston where she practices there has been an increase in bigoted and misogynist online speech by students that has come to the attention of school authorities. She says she finds it "interesting and concerning that President Trump, like our students, uses social media to express strong, biased views that can be oppressive to citizens with particular identities." 

A 16-year-old from California told the HRC:

At my high school, people were drawing in the stalls above water fountains and toilets: 'white' or 'colored' ... I am Hindu and one white boy at my school called me a terrorist and a Muslim, as if the two go hand in hand. It was insulting and humiliating.

What parents can do

All of the mothers in the aforementioned examples said their schools have been responsive, but they're still essentially trying to figure out how to handle this onslaught of hateful behavior. Bullying isn't new by any means, but this election cycle has changed the game in many ways. So how do we as parents help our children right now? 

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Offner says standard advice such as telling kids to ignore bullies is old-fashioned and ineffective. "It rarely worked in the past, and since the advent of social media, it has become much, much easier for children and teenagers to intimidate and malign each other."

Instead of ignoring, take action. "If your child is being targeted or harassed online or by cell phone, make sure you take screenshots of the evidence," recommends Offner. "Teach your child basic self-defense strategies, like blocking cell phone numbers and reporting inappropriate posts to sites like Facebook and Instagram." 

She also says parents should encourage children to confide in a teacher or administrator at school, adding that connecting with other victims' parents to strategize about how to approach the problem can be effective. Parents should also know that in some states, cyber-bullying and harassment are criminal offenses, and you can take concerns to the police or to the designated state reporting agency.

An 18-year-old from South Carolina revealed to the HRC:

I took off my pride bracelet because I was afraid my classmates would harass me if they saw it.

Lieberman agrees this isn't a time to tread lightly. "You have to be the squeaky wheel in order to get the grease," she points out. "Teachers, guidance counselors, and principals have so many kids to look after, and feel so helpless when it comes to the epidemic of bullying, that they often do not make more of an effort than to tell the bully once, 'Don't do this again.' The bully simply ignores them and waits until their head is turned to do it again and again. If your repeated visits to the school, and talks with the teachers, guidance counselor, and principal, don't stop the bullying, you need to report it to the police. This gives the school a wake-up call." 

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P. Denise Long, an occupational therapist in the St. Louis area, says adults can and should compassionately acknowledge the lived experience of the child who was bullied or mistreated while trying to keep a sense of calm and ensure safety. This includes nurturing the child's self-advocacy and building language and vocabulary to address unpleasant situations (role playing, self-reflection, reading books that build capacities with advocacy, encouraged journaling).

When the bully is in your own backyard

On the other hand, no parents want to think they're raising a bully, but clearly some of us are. Offner says the key to making sure your children aren't exhibiting hateful behavior -- no matter what their political beliefs -- is to talk to them. 

"I don't know an adult or child living in the United States who does not harbor some racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted thoughts," says Long. "Encourage your child to be open with you about his or her conceptions, biases, and ideas -- and listen. Don't make your child feel guilty for having such thoughts, but distinguish clearly for him or her between thinking, feeling, and DOING. Help your child build empathy for others who are different, in whatever way, by using books, YouTube videos, and ongoing family conversation."

She says it's also important to remember that kids who bully often have some underlying insecurity or frustration. If you worry about your child in this way, try to figure out what might underlie his or her aggression and address it at home and/or with professional help. 

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No matter who you voted for or how you feel about our current president, I think we can all agree that at a minimum, children shouldn't feel threatened just because of who they are or what they believe. We've got to lead by example and demand that despite any differences and disagreements, everyone is treated with respect. Because what's happening now is simply not acceptable.  

 

If you or someone you know has expressed suicidal thoughts, please let them know they are not alone. Text START to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or visit the Suicide Prevention Resource Center at www.sprc.org.

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