For the ninth-grade girl in Colorado, the bullying began two weeks into the school year and continued into the spring. The white boy in her history class targeted her after learning that she was Muslim and of Mexican descent. He made jokes about building a wall and deporting brown immigrants, about bombs and terrorists. On the day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, the boy, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, said to her, “I told you to pack your bags. You might not be here tomorrow.”
“It made school feel like an unsafe environment,” the girl said. “School used to be something I really enjoyed. But I became scared to go — or at least tired of having to hear it every single day.”
As BuzzFeed News reported last month, white students across the country used the president's words and slogans to bully Latino, Middle Eastern, black, Asian, and Jewish classmates in the first school year of the Trump presidency. Since the publication of that story, BuzzFeed News has been able to follow up on incidents at 27 additional schools, bringing the total number of authenticated occurrences of election-related bullying to 81 — and counting. The reports were sent in through the Documenting Hate project, a database of tips about hate crimes and bias incidents set up by ProPublica and shared with other news organizations. BuzzFeed News spoke by phone to dozens of parents, teachers, administrators, and students who witnessed or were informed about these incidents. Nearly every student requested anonymity for fear that speaking out publicly would aggravate the abuse or damage their social life.
While some incidents, such as “Build the wall” chants at an assembly or sporting event, were isolated affairs that targeted groups of students, other cases of abuse were long-running campaigns against individuals. For those kids, like the Colorado ninth-grader, the end of the school year brought a reprieve — and a hope: that the appeal, or novelty, of Trump’s rhetoric among classmates will have dimmed by the time summer vacation ends.
“I’m hoping it was just a phase for those kids,” said an eighth-grade Mexican-American girl from Georgia who faced regular election-related harassment from a group of classmates. “A lot of them didn’t really seem like they believed in the things Trump was saying — they just wanted to get a rise out of people. But I don’t think they would have targeted me if it wasn’t for the stuff Trump was saying.”
Teachers and administrators across the country were caught off guard last school year by the extent to which racial and religious intolerance suddenly shaped how kids talk, joke, and bully. Many principals and superintendents responded aggressively: with schoolwide assemblies and districtwide emails condemning intolerant language, committees to handle election-related bullying, proposals to track incidents of bias, and, in a few cases, suspensions.
Antonio Lopez, an assistant superintendent in Portland, Oregon, said that he hopes to create a system to track racist bullying in his district and to implement it before classes resume. For some administrators, including in Saucon Valley, Pennsylvania, and San Diego, the summer is offering time to strengthen or better enforce anti-bullying and antidiscrimination initiatives approved in the winter and spring. Doug Kaplicky, a middle school principal in Spokane Valley, Washington, is planning to use these months to consider how to best discuss the tension of the past year in his annual speech at the opening assembly at the start of classes.
Brett Emmons, a middle school principal in Hood River, Oregon, sees reason for optimism. After dozens of his students chanted “Build that wall” at a school event in October, Emmons addressed the incident in a letter to all students, discussed it at an assembly, ordered a schoolwide writing assignment about it, and organized a festival on campus that showcased games and food from around the world. He said that he had not heard about any racist bullying at his school since. Echoing administrators at other schools, Emmons plans to address future incidents on a case-by-case basis.
“I feel like things have settled in our community,” said Emmons. “We felt compelled to take some pretty dramatic steps.”
But in the closed ecosystem of adolescent social life, students and parents explained that some cases never make it up the chain. Often, several students from across the US told BuzzFeed News, it is the day-to-day, low-impact bullying that stays hidden from adults — the one-liners at the beginning of class or in the hallway, slights that might feel too small to report.
“He hadn’t had trouble with bullies before this year. This is a new thing and it started during the election.”
One Mexican-American 10th-grade girl in Indiana said that her white classmates sang the Dora the Explorer theme song every time she stepped onto the bus, along with shouts of “Build that wall” and jokes about deportation. She told her mother not to report it because she hoped “it would stop after a while.” An eighth-grade girl from Wyoming said that after the election, a group of boys in her class who vocally supported Trump began calling her “Jew girl.” She said she wasn’t sure if their actions were bad enough for her to tell a teacher. “I just started sticking up to them myself,” she said.
Some said they feared the social consequences of snitching.
“I didn’t want to deal with what would happen if I told the principal,” the eighth-grader in Georgia said. “And I didn’t think they could really do much about it anyway.”
One Jewish eighth-grade boy in Pennsylvania faced a wave of anti-Semitic harassment from classmates who sometimes also chanted Trump’s name at him. “The kids pinpointed my son and made him cry every day for two weeks,” said the boy’s mother. The mother informed the principal, who transferred the bullies out of the boy’s classes and moved his locker far away from theirs. The boy saw the bullies less often but could not avoid them completely. “At least one boy was still doing it up until the end of the school year,” the mother said. “He hadn’t had trouble with bullies before this year. This is a new thing and it started during the election.”
At the ninth-grade girl’s high school in Colorado, students were about as divided over the election as the rest of the country. There were shouting matches in the lunchroom. Three times, they escalated into fistfights. “It definitely got physical when kids tried to get a reaction from a person of color,” the ninth-grader said. Teachers banned political talk from classrooms. The principal made announcements on the intercom asking students to respect one another.
“A lot of us were on edge, a lot of us were scared,” the ninth-grader said. “The political arguments were almost a daily occurrence.”
At first, she ignored remarks of the bully in her history class. By March, she had begun talking back, usually “diplomatically,” she said.
Then one day in April, during a class discussion, she made a point about how, since the election, many people had been “struggling to continue their everyday lives and pretend that they’re not scared because at the end of the day, it affects all of us kids of color.” She’d made similar statements in classes before, but apparently something about this one stuck with the bully.
“After class he came up to me and apologized for everything he had said,” she said. “He still believed the stuff he believed, but the stuff he would say to me died down after that.”
She wondered if maybe the emotional temperatures were cooling now that the competitive passions of the election were months past, and if the novelty of Trump had worn off. But then she checked her optimism.
“I wish this was just a moment, but anytime something big happens it’s gonna affect schools,” she said. “I don’t think this is something that just goes away.” ●