Inside the Trump Effect: How One District Is Fighting Hate at School

Some say an uptick in bullying incidents this fall were caused by the divisive election – but how does a school fix the underlying problems?

After the election raised existing tensions at schools countrywide, one Pennsylvania community found an unlikely advocate: their own superintendent. Credit: Illustration by Ryan Casey

Last fall, as a grueling presidential election turned to its agonizing final chapter, teachers in eastern Pennsylvania started reporting a troubling phenomenon. In September, at Southern Lehigh High School, administrators reported students flinging the "Heil Hitler" salute in the hallways. Swastikas were found across school grounds. Black students were called "cotton pickers," non-hetero women "dykes." Eight miles away, in the East Penn school district, two swastikas and the N-word were drawn in a school bus window.

Then there was the case of Saucon Valley High, a 740-person public school in nearby Northhampton County. Tensions had long predated the election, students and administrators say, but had ripened by October when a Snapchat video began to circulate among students. In it, a white teenager harasses his black peer at a school pep-rally. "This fucking nigger is taking his time!" an unseen student jeers at a black student sitting before a plate of food. Days after the video, tensions culminated in a fistfight between the two students.

By one account, schools across Pennsylvania witnessed at least 20 such incidents clustered around the election, and there were dozens more across the country, as media accounts of swastika drawings become a weekly phenomenon. Whether it suggests a national trend, however, is too soon to say: Any official increase in school-based hate is measured in formal reports – data that will not be available for months, in some cases years.

It's telling, though, that teachers are not reporting transgressions of the garden variety, like bullying or cursing. Rather it encompasses a set of offenses that form the strange war cry of a new strain of politics – popular among the young and disinhibited – committed in the name of upending so-called PC culture. As to why, some teachers, administrators and students have a strong hunch: They call it the Trump Effect.

For teachers, the new semester has only compounded the dread of an impossibly difficult fall. "We were already hearing from teachers as they really struggled to figure out: How do you teach about an election that looks more like a reality show than an election?" says Maureen Costello, a former teacher who leads the Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the climate of the country's schools. "There's certainly data to suggest that bullying has become politicized. I cannot remember another presidential candidate who has done that. And many teachers say, this is new."

In November, weeks after the election, the SPLC published a report based on 10,000 teacher survey responses, a remarkable if unscientific sample. Two-thirds of respondents reported an increase in student fears about their safety after the election, largely from minority or immigrant families. A sample of more than 1,200 responses, made available to Rolling Stone, included students hoisting the confederate flag during the pledge of allegiance; a California school scrubbing away graffiti reading "No Niggers Allowed"; and a third grader in Washington State who asked the class, "All the Muslims in our school have to leave. So we'll have more chairs soon, right?" Teachers were not exempt. "We'll miss you!" one teacher overheard a colleague telling an undocumented girl, when she approached the teacher to confide her fears on the morning after the election.

Teenagers are particularly susceptible to the mimicry that dictates school norms – as anyone who went to middle or high school can attest – a phenomenon known in the parlance of school sociologists as "social referencing," according to Linda Tropp, a professor at UMass Amherst. That mimicry may be taking on new dimensions. "Trump presents as a bully, and so he's mimicked as a bully," says Costello. (Biographer Michael D'Antonio once analogized Trump's politics in a similar way: "I think that he's sort of playing to the kids in the classroom who hate the teacher, too, and really love it when someone disrupts things," D'Antonio said.)

Across the U.S., teachers are finding themselves in the unwelcome teeth of politics. In one California school district, a teacher was suspended for mentioning the history of Nazi Germany in the context of Trump's victory – an odd sanction, given the blooming of swastikas in California's own public schools just after the election. Private schools, unsurprisingly, tend to see the problem more lucidly: When a private school in Loudon County, Virginia, saw its historic black schoolhouse vandalized with swastikas after the election, teachers were instructed to cover the event aggressively – with students marshaled in the cleanup effort. "We need to give teachers room to have this conversation," says Dr. Deep Sran, the school's principal. "If we don't, students are only going to find information from the web." He mentions the story of a nearby public school whose teachers were banned from discussing politics. "We do actually have to respond to what teacher concerns are," says Sran. "Otherwise, I think the Republic will suffer. I don't see any way around it."

Public school, on the other hand, have reported feelings of constraint. The SPLC's survey results include teachers prompted to describe their fears: "Administration planned to completely ignore the issue," wrote one. Another: " Is it so much to ask for schools to denounce a white supremacist in the White House? Because it was "too political", I got a reprimand from my boss." Entry 1082 simply reads: "HELP." For America's teachers, it could be a long four years.

Saucon Valley is a school whose divisions, in some ways mirror the country's. Residents in the school district residents narrowly voted for Trump by 137 votes, out of 3,600 cast. And while the nation's pundits were predicting a blowout for Clinton, especially in states like Pennsylvania, the high school held its traditional mock election. The result came down to about ten votes, breaking for Trump. The morning after the national election, euphoric students poured into class, Trump's red signature hats and T-shirts pockmarking the long hallways.

Across the Lehigh Valley, some residents have grown reluctant to discussing the issue. Furious Saucon Valley parents, especially parents of students of color, have appealed to the district to intervene. Some were surprised by the early emergence of an unlikely champion: Saucon Valley's own superintendent, Monica McHale-Small.

"Our job is not just to teach [students] how to read, write and do arithmetic, but to teach them how to get along in the world, and that this kind of behavior is not okay," McHale-Small told me when she first spoke over the phone, during her school's winter break. "This preceded Donald Trump even as a candidate. But this election kind of took the lid off something that was kind of..." She pauses. "I don't think it was never not there. I believe it's been there all along, and people feel empowered."

After the racially-charged video and retaliatory fight last October, administrators were shocked. Police charged the black student with assault for starting the fight; after some delay, the local DA threatened to prosecute the white student for "ethnic intimidation" over the video. The story took off – McHale-Small soon found herself targeted by the Daily Stormer, the white supremacist website, which posted her photo and school phone number. In early December, McHale-Small sent a letter to parents about incidents and their attention in the media. "As I have said in the press and at Board meetings, this situation was handled promptly and appropriately by our building and district administration," it read, referring to the mediation session that was required of the students, and to their subsequent punishment. "Even prior to this incident, our district has been working toward developing the cultural competency of faculty and staff." In the weeks after, McHale-Small began to push a series of high-profile initiatives: A new Inclusion Committee led by students and faculty, a teacher development program to discuss research on implicit bias and, eventually, a visit from the federal government. 

A lifelong Pennsylvanian, McHale-Small was born and raised in Delaware County. She waved away a career as a doctor, her parents' preference, and entered the University of Pennsylvania's graduate program in education. She was drawn to psychology, a track that quickened her curiosity in issues of classroom equity, race and performance. At Penn, McHale-Small joined a cohort of one-day superintendents influenced by academics like Bob Jarvis, one of the university's intrepid researchers on race and equity. When she graduated, McHale-Small migrated across jobs in Pennsylvania, serving in districts whose white populations were consistently dwindling. In one district in Lebanon County, over the course of her tenure, the district's Latino population more than doubled, from three percent to eight.

One afternoon in January, I drove through the toy-train village of Hellertown, up a hill past wilted cornfields and fog-crested valleys, to meet McHale-Small in her district office. She sat on an olive couch, bracketed between her doctorate degree and a fraying poster of Mahatma Gandhi. "I was kind of incredulous they picked me," she recalls of the school board's selection process. The district is 87 percent white, with a strong graduation rate. Small's 13-year career had tilted toward more diverse communities – she'd found work as a psychologist and administrator in Upper Darby and West Chester – when she was approached by Saucon Valley, a more rural district, to recruit her into her first stint as a superintendent.

"They said they were really looking for someone who was going to stretch the district, to take it to the next level," she recalls. During the interview process, she notes, "I talked about equity. I was very honest about what was important to me." She was hired in June 2014, and began that August. Almost her entire tenure has been shadowed by the presidential election.

At 56, McHale-Small has auburn hair and delicate features. Her face wore a kind of expression sometimes seen in losing politicians, sweet but sullen. "It's a big reason this may not be the right kind of job – you are in the spotlight as a superintendent," she laughs nervously. "Maybe I should have thought that through." The school day had turned out more eventful than expected: That afternoon, the county's District Attorney, John Morganelli, was considering whether to charge the white student for the Snapchat video.

The drama has been taxing on parents and students, as well. "They're not happy with the attention we're receiving," she says. "They were hesitant to admit that maybe this really is something that needs to be dealt with. I think now we all know that it is." Though she had described the presidential campaign as helping to embolden a spirit of disinhibition, McHale-Small remains reluctant to place Trump at the center of recent events – she insists, perhaps in a nod to the district's politics, that the campaign and the district's tumult are not connected. "This far preceded Donald Trump even being a candidate," she says. "This is my third year in the district. Our first incident happened my first year."

Bob Jarvis, the race and equity researcher from McHale's early days at Penn, suggests that the Lehigh Valley region is undergoing dramatic demographic changes. Few have studied the region's trends and its effects on education more closely than Jarvis, a bear of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard, who seems to barely fit inside his cramped, book-strewn office at Penn's Center for Educational Leadership in West Philadelphia. "I think Trump's success here [in Pennsylvania] has emboldened people that were once underground," Jarvis says. In 2000, Jarvis founded a regional alliance of school districts, which brought administrators together to strategize over the newest research on racial equity in classrooms. This Delaware Valley Consortium on Excellence and Equity, a straightforward enough idea, was one of the first of its kind. McHale-Small followed this model in 2015, founding one such network in the Lehigh Valley.

Jarvis swivels to his computer and pulls up a series of maps of eastern Pennsylvania that show how its white, rural areas have become far more integrated over the past 15 years. "Part of what's going on in this school, and these other districts, are areas that are more diverse and more economically challenged," he says. "And they're not prepared for it."

Jarvis' data hints at a still-larger trend, not so much an elephant in the room as an iceberg hovering on the water. Trump's political fortunes, and the upheaval occasioned by it, are warped toward a demographic judgment day – the year 2045, when white America will no longer represent a majority of the population. One place in the country where this long-foretold transformation has already occurred – inside public schools, where in 2016 nonwhite students outnumbered white for the first time on record. For Trump voters who fear a changing world, the target of their dread lurks not only at the ballot box, but at the bus stop.

"Our particular district, Saucon Valley, is a changing demographic," says McHale-Small. "It's been a very insular community. And now it's changing."

After administrators at Southern Lehigh, East Penn and Saucon sent notices home to parents, local news sprung to action, grilling McHale-Small, honing in on angry parents, and once planting reporters across the street to interview students before first period. Not everyone describes the same problem at Saucon Valley. "I haven't seen students seem particularly emboldened," says Saucon English teacher Megan Hauser. "My bigger concern was almost this negation of the work that we do as teachers – as if what they're seeing in the political landscape negates what we're trying to teach them." Hauser had responded to the SPLC survey. "I actually had a couple of students who had sort of been touting Trump's name for sake of effect, and then when he won, they were like, 'Woah. I didn't actually think that was going to happen.'"

Amy Kozel, Saucon’s civics and economics teacher, had asked herself similar questions. "This is something I’ve been struggling with my students for years. When they talk about immigration, it's – 'Oh my God, the Mexicans!'" says Kozel, who has taught in the district for 13 years. "This election has empowered some people be a little bit more vocal." As for a Trump Effect? " I don't really see it. The problems are deeper, and we just have not addressed them. But at some point, it’s going to come out where you can’t hide it anymore, and that’s what this was." Kozel expressed less concern about students mimicking Trumps (“They were far more involved [in the election] this year – I think it’s great. If they’re going to offend me or others, I can work with that," she says.)

One of the school's student Trump supporters was 16-year-old junior we'll call Seth who reported that tensions around Election Day were high; when he decided to don his red Trump hat for the infamous October pep rally, one student approached him to forcibly remove it, he says. "It's Trump's charisma that's really attracted many students," Seth says, speaking by phone the night before a midterm. "The border wall, for example, is such a radical notion – and young-minded people are very radical. I'm assuming that's what catches their interest." Seth became enthralled with Trump after reading Russia Today, Breitbart and InfoWars; he made an emphatic case for Trump's vision, describing at one point the left's refusal to condemn Islam as "political correctness that kills."

Without intending to, Seth's reasoning showed that the animosity long directed at liberal academia has seeped into teenager's animosity toward their teachers. "As far as teachers, their bias towards the left is evident," he says. "It's the same thing that's occurring in colleges around the country – these professors being biased towards the left." Seth spoke to me a few weeks before the inauguration, when press coverage of the racial incidents had crested. "I do really believe that the election has minimal to do with that," he says. As for the students heiling Hitler at nearby Southern Lehigh, he adds, "That's unacceptable. But they're most likely doing that for a joke."

At Seth's school, McHale-Small has tried to introduce a series of initiatives since the election season began. Not all of them have been buoyantly received. One, a "climate survey" on bullying and race, garnered some pushback from parents. ("A few did ask why race was so central," she says.) She also kept up a focus on restorative mediation – which puts students students and their parents face-to-face in a room with a trained mediator, as a way to make sure their eventual punishment actually resonates. After the video firestorm, she created the Inclusion Committee, with students of color serving on the board – part of a philosophy, she says, of trying to give students a voice, even if only in spirit. And together with a neighboring superintendent, McHale-Small launched a Greater Lehigh Valley Consortium for Equity and Excellence, a kind of ongoing boot camp for teacher development. Last year, in its inaugural phase, McHale-Small rallied administrators from across the district to the discussion-centered conferences, with topics like "Root Causes of Underachievement" and cultural competency. This year, teachers from Saucon Valley will attend a program created specifically for them for the first time. 

"One of the things some of the teachers had asked for is strategies," explains McHale-Small, echoing the anxiety expressed in the SPLC report. "If you hear conversation in the classroom or hallway, how do you jump in and handle it?"

Kozel, the civics teacher, agrees, describing the difficulties facing some more inexperienced teachers. "That's actually the larger issue: Staff don’t necessarily know how to counteract a lot of the comments or questions," Kozel says. "If I were a 24-year-old teacher, and someone spouted something out, I would be like holy crap, what do I say? Someone chimes in – now kids are feeding off each other in the room. If you can’t respond to it the right way, what are you supposed to do?"

Yet some in McHale-Small's district paint these efforts as superficial. Writing anonymously in an SPLC response, one elementary staffer in the district said that "racist and classist acts of intimidation have been occurring for 10 years… Our upper administration is... creating an Inclusion Committee, but exercising little effort to gather allies and educators." McHale-Small listened to this sympathetically, and hoped the new teacher summits could make a dent. "We have a long way to go," she says.

After some time, McHale-Small rises from the couch and opens the door for two students and their parents – she ushers in James, a sturdy junior with a babyish grin, and Jordan, a lithe but somber classmate who, during our conversation, reveals himself to be the target of the Snapchat video. (Since they are minors, both names have been changed.) They are two of about 60 students of color at Saucon Valley, and both the children of mixed-race households. The two families camp around a coffee table, a remarkable scene, as McHale-Small presides over a freewheeling discussion that resembles something close to group therapy.

The two young men recount some of their experience of being a minority teenager growing up in an overwhelmingly white school. A few years ago, Jordan was accused of stealing from the lunchroom, he says, and patted down in public. (School staff found nothing). This election, he's heard friends playfully utter racial epithets. A student once tried to drape him in a confederate flag in a hallway.

"You hear the N-word. You think, oh they said a word – doesn't hurt me," James says, jumping into the conversation. "But I guess that's a way of coping." Jordan, who fidgets silently on the couch, punctuates his friend's rapid delivery with occasional sparkling wit. Over the course of two hours, the students deliberated, sometimes painfully, over whether their school was witnessing a Trump Effect. The verdict was unclear. "Things bubbled up when Obama was elected – because he was of color – and now that we have Donald Trump, everything got whipped up again," says James. "It predated all that, too."

"I'm not asking for anyone to be interested in what's going on at Saucon," says Jordan. "But look at racism as a whole. Especially with Trump. A lot of people don't believe he's a racist. I do." Here, McHale-Small, who has been watching patiently, jumps in. "I think a lot of people think that unless you're using the N-word, you're not being racist," she says. "But the kind of racism that pervades is the more insidious, subtle, really more harmful type."

Getting the school board, parents and staff to agree with this premise is now McHale-Small's challenge. She's steadfast that the school's problems predated Trump. Yet McHale-Small had unintentionally painted a minor paradox: In honoring the taboo of discussing Trump's role at all, McHale-Small had revealed his relevance to the challenges of reconciliation in Saucon Valley. Blaming a president whom half your district voted for is not a shortcut to win hearts and minds – yet if Trump happens to spark conversations about decades-old biases, she seems to hint, perhaps the better.

For now, here in her office, the boys struck a hopeful note about McHale-Small's newest venture, the community-wide Inclusion Committee, where they would report school experiences and offer recommendations to improve school life. "After everything I've been through at this school, it's definitely a ray of light in the darkness," Jordan says. "It's something I can look forward to."

McHale-Small, hearing this, smiles weakly. "I don't want to be too Pollyannaish," she says. But Jordan persists. "It's something I want my brother to look forward to," he continues, referring to his younger sibling in middle school. "I don't want it to fail. I don't want to have people say, 'Oh you guys are from Sacuon Valley – isn't that a racist school?'"

Though she conveyed hopefulness about her upcoming initiatives, McHale-Small was privately anticipating that the situation might worsen. Shortly after our meeting, Trump announced, then botched, a series of ordinances to block the travel of residents from several Muslim countries. McHale-Small had one more item in her arsenal to throw at the problem, and now seemed as good a time as any: She called in the Department of Justice.

Shortly after Trump's ban was announced, a small team of federal personnel assembled with student leaders in the Saucon gymnasium. They were representatives from the Department's Community Relations Services. Nicknamed the Department "Peacemakers," their official role is to liaise between civil rights groups and local governments. At Saucon, the division would be running its signature program, "Student Problem Identifying and Resolving Issues Together," or SPIRIT. The program was first introduced to mediate gang rivalries in California high schools in the 1980s. Increasingly, it's been deployed to calm racial and ethnic tensions, inviting student leaders to join mediated, often emotional, discussions. Social-media flashpoints have increasingly become catalyst events. In a noteworthy case, a high school in Duluth, Minnesota invited the SPIRIT mediators after a Snapchat video circulated with an image of a black man and a noose around his neck.

The sessions at Saucon lasted two days. Teams of Saucon Valley's students were assembled, with all ethnicities represented and to start, broken down into separate groups to discuss their experiences. James and Jordan participated among the black students. The students drew up a list of concerns, and debated them heatedly – including during an extended period when adults and administrators were asked to leave. "It got intense at one point – one student almost going after another student," McHale-Small says. Students spoke in turn, at some points insisting and denying that there was a problem. By the second day, "Kids were tearing up," she says. "It was kind of cool."

After three years of effort, McHale-Small was clear-eyed about the value of any single program. But her concerns now lingered less on students than the adults – parents who took their children out of the DOJ event prematurely, and at least one teacher who suggested the students had been coached into affecting racial indignation.

In her trepidation on how adults would value the program, McHale-Small was not alone – her concerns were shared by officials at the Department of Justice. One told Rolling Stone that ever since Jeff Sessions – a man whose record on racial discrimination once undermined his own case for the federal judiciary – became Attorney General, many DOJ staffers believe it could be a matter of time before Trump vilifies or cuts initiatives like SPIRIT. "A lot of colleagues are demoralized. It's a frightening time," the official says. At the question of a changing racial atmosphere in the nation's schools – and whether Trump factors into this zeitgeist – the official only chuckled darkly. "There's evidence everywhere that there's been an uptick in problems with schools, with changing demographics and politics," he said. "There were plenty of opportunities [for Trump] to admonish folks for doing things that were overtly racist. And that hasn't happened." On school students, he said, "Yes, we do think that has an impact."

Last Valentine's Day, McHale-Small was driving her Subaru Crosstrek alone up I-95, racing back from a conference in Washington, D.C., to attend a meeting of the Saucon Valley school board.

The board had recently voted to grant McHale-Small a new three-year term in October, calling her a "gem" and a "change agent." But the politics of dealing with the coming tsunami had seemed to deflate McHale-Small. "It's an uncertain time for public education, and for the country. And for the underserved kids and people who have always been my focus, which are minority kids, and poor kids, and kids with disabilities," she later tells me. She adds that she might go work in advocacy or counseling – something more radical to her tastes. "I just want to be able to work where I can exercise my mind freely, and not have to be careful."

That evening, she tendered her resignation to the board.

Until her term ends in June, there will be plenty to keep her busy; she had recently learned some of the behavior had spread to the middle school. "Nothing too explosive," she assured wearily. "Mostly comments – 'Go back to your country.' The standard." In another episode, McHale-Small was juggling how to approach a parent who had picked up his son from school with a confederate flag streaming from the back of his pickup truck. "The parents were upset about that one," she added gamely, noting several days later that the man took the flag down before she even had to ask.

Over the phone, there's the tinny clack of a car door slamming. "I hate to disappoint people," she murmurs, her heels clicking down the hall toward the board room, where the board members had gathered. Also on the agenda: An upcoming series of teacher boot-camps, trainings she would oversee until the end of the semester. Inside, she murmured about her last few moments as superintendent: She couldn't say what would happen to her district, other than a hope that three years of effort would leave a mark. "I want people to say, this was the best thing that has ever happened in Saucon Valley."