I. A Report from the Field
In my day job as a school administrator, I handle discipline at a rural high school in western Washington.
During the first week of school, a white boy — one of my school’s most notorious bullies — told a Latina classmate he hoped Trump would win so she’d be deported. To her credit, she retorted that she was born here and that this is her country as much as his.
But it still stung. For the next several weeks, he and his friends tormented her by chanting or screaming “Trump! Trump!” whenever they saw her in the halls or out on campus.
She did not think to report that, but she did bring in a sobbing white friend whom the boys had harassed for months by chanting some exotic synonym for “slut” they gleaned from the Urban Dictionary.
Victims and witnesses soon gave me the whole story, which allowed me to extract at least partial confessions from the perpetrators — all of whom preferred ratting out their “friends” to admitting their own wrongdoing. As if that could save them.
To their credit, the parents of the perps — despite being likely Trump voters — conceded that their boys were in the wrong and accepted without complaint the regimen of detentions, suspensions and apology/reflection letters to which I sentenced their sons.
II. What Does It Mean?
The above case is not unique. For more than a year now, educators have regularly reported similar Trump-inspired hate speech in public schools across the country, primarily targeting presumed immigrants and Muslims. The antiracist Southern Poverty Law Center has collected data on the phenomenon, and the (unabashedly pro-Clinton) National Education Association has condemned the negative impact of the “Trump Effect” on school climate.
In my two decades in public education, I have never — until the present campaign — seen school bullies take direct inspiration from a presidential nominee.
It was never really possible before. Political parties typically strive to nominate reasonably likable and decent candidates who rarely resort to bullying, at least in public. It would have been meaningless for bullies to chant “Bush” or “Clinton,” “Obama” or “Romney.”
Chant “Trump,” though, and everyone knows what you mean. The GOP nominee constantly models bullying behavior, from trolling tweets in the wee hours to quasi-fascist rallies where he whips up fear and hatred — affirming nativists and racists, demeaning women, urging violence against his detractors, denouncing Mexicans and Muslims, mocking a disabled reporter, etc.
Obviously, Trump poses an existential threat not just to democracy, prosperity and national security, but also to the decency and character of the American people.
But has Trump caused a spike in school bullying? We do not know. The phenomenon is relatively recent; we have anecdotes aplenty, but little reliable data. Trump has certainly influenced the specific vocabulary of bullying, and has probably increased attacks on particular populations.
The boys in the example I cited above are not close students of presidential politics. They formed regrettable views on race and gender long before the current campaign, and they may well retain those attitudes long after Trump passes from the national scene.
For the present, though, Trump thrills and emboldens every aspiring bully. When a leading candidate for the nation’s highest office can without consequence model cruelty, bigotry and boorish behavior, our culture has hit rock bottom.
Whether or not Hillary Clinton’s proposed federal anti-bullying program comes to pass, public educators will continue to work diligently to build school cultures that reject bullying and embrace diversity and mutual respect. The Millennials’ immunity to Trump serves as partial testimony to our previous success in that work.