Election's Intolerant Tone Stokes Fears for Latino Students
It started out as a civics lesson. It quickly became a lesson in incivility.
The anti-immigration signs lining the hall at Erwin High School in this mountain city carried messages like "America Is for Americans," "Illegals Go Home," and "If We Don't Take Out the Trash, Who Will?"
Posted to Facebook by a student angry about the signs, the images went viral in September 2015, sending shockwaves through Erwin High, where Hispanic enrollment has more than doubled in the past decade.
For Keyla Estrada, the signs were a jarring and frightening welcome to the United States; it marked the first week of high school in this country for the Mexican immigrant.
Educators and child advocates worry what happened at the 1,300-student high school is confirmation of what some have dubbed the "Trump effect," a spike in anxiety and fear among nonwhite students sparked by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's rhetoric.
Trump's statements on race, religion, and immigration—that many Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, rapists, and other types of criminals, that Muslims are a danger to America, and his vow to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—have reverberated through the nation's K-12 schools, with students in some communities bearing the residual brunt.
During the second presidential debate, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton scolded Trump for the rhetoric, going so far as to blame him for increased tension in American schools.
"Children listen to what is being said, ... and there's a lot of fear," Clinton said. "In fact, teachers and parents are calling it the Trump effect. Bullying is up. A lot of people are feeling uneasy. A lot of kids are expressing their concerns."
School leaders here in Asheville refer to the controversy at Erwin High as "The Incident," a civics and economics class project taken completely out of context on social media. Students were asked to take a stance on immigration, based on what they'd heard from the candidates running for president. About 30 signs were created—several bearing decidedly anti-immigrant messages.
The fallout was both immediate and enduring.
Students staged a protest the next day, with many waving a Mexican flag that they claimed was confiscated by school employees. Parents showed up in droves to demand answers and accountability for perceived grievances past and present. School leaders scrambled to quell the tension, hiring more bilingual staff and providing training sessions to help educators understand how to talk about culturally sensitive issues.
"It was an assignment, but it hit the nerve that was reality to those who have experienced that frustration, and anger, and that cultural difference," said David Thompson, the director of student services for the Buncombe County school district.
Still, more than a year later, Keyla doesn't feel comfortable on campus.
"I feel that racism continues existing there," the 19-year-old said through an interpreter. "The school has a lot of work to do because they don't even realize everything that's going on. How racism comes out amongst the students, they don't know what some students go through every day."
Educators at Erwin High acknowledge that uneasiness like Keyla's remains evident at the school.
"We'd be remiss to say that it's not there, and that it's not underlying," school social worker Shelly Rose said. "I don't think that by any stretch of the imagination that it's not a part of these kids' lives."
Clear and Present Anger
Teaching Tolerance, an education project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, took an informal, unscientific poll of educators last spring to gauge how the presidential campaign had affected schools. The organization queried teachers who subscribe to its weekly newsletter to collect anecdotes.
More than two-thirds of the 2,000 teachers who responded reported that students—mainly immigrants, children of immigrants, and Muslims—expressed concerns or fears about what might happen after the election.
Fearing anti-immigrant violence in the wake of the controversy at Erwin High, 15-year-old Maria Cruz said her mother kept her out of school for a week after the signs went up.
"I didn't even want to come," said Maria, a Mexican immigrant. "If they don't want us here, why am I here?"
Teachers who answered the Teaching Tolerance survey also reported that the election has caused some students to feel more empowered to bully. The offensive, sometimes shocking language coming from the presidential campaign has accelerated in recent weeks, with women joining immigrants and Muslims as a target for Trump.
"What [Trump] says, for children, it's catchy. It ignores nuance," said Phillip Carter, an assistant professor at Florida International University who studies language and culture in Latino communities.
A suburban Dallas high school hosted a Trump-themed football pep rally—with a sign depicting the border wall he wants to build—before a game against a rival high school with a large Latino population. The rally's theme, "Make Colleyville Great Again," was a direct reference to Trump's central campaign pledge: "Make America Great Again."
At a Spanish-language immersion school in California's Sonoma County, vandals last week spraypainted "Build the wall higher" and "Trump 2016" on walls around the campus.
In a high school 40 miles west of Asheville in McDowell County, about 30 students posed in front of a makeshift wall for an Instagram post captioned, "We built the wall first." The student sitting front and center in the photo wore a Trump T-shirt.
While there's no research or quantitative data to back the theory that bullying is on the rise and that Trump's rhetoric is behind the increase, there is palpable unease for some students in schools with documented Trump-related incidents
"I think it's going to continue, I think it's going to get worse a little," Erwin High student Josue said through an interpreter. (Education Week is identifying Josue only by his first name because of his immigration status.)
The 18-year-old immigrant from El Salvador arrived in the United States in January, joining his mother and two siblings. During his month-long journey, he often went without food, "knowing that there was only a possibility" he might arrive to his destination.
"Because Donald Trump has started discriminating against everyone," Josue said. "Now that's how people will feel they can treat us from now on."
Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, said: "Kids learn the lessons we show them, not just the ones we teach explicitly, and they are not going to unlearn them in a day."
Researchers who study the development of racial attitudes in children and the impact of racial trauma can't say what the long-term effects will be on the students who are the targets of taunts and bullying.
"What does that do to the way they construct meaning of themselves, of their families, of their home languages, of their ethnicity?" asked Carter of Florida International University.
"Those effects are unfortunately already out there. Chances are these kids are already feeling insecure and unsure of their place in school and maybe even ashamed. In which case, these kinds of comments affirm the sense of shame and vulnerability they're already getting from school."
That fear and vulnerability for Erwin High students spiked this summer after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested one of their former schoolmates at his home in one of its raids.
Guatemala native Elmer Reynoso, a 19-year-old, sat in a South Carolina detention center for months after skipping an immigration hearing.
Reynoso's case drew support from immigrant activists who helped get him released from detention and secure a new hearing. But the threat of deportation still looms for Reynoso and others.
Josue's legal status remains in limbo as he awaits his own immigration hearing. The possibility he might be sent back weighs heavily.
"All the effort it took to arrive here. Knowing that there was only a possibility that you might arrive here alive," Josue said. "Maybe that first day you present at court, they might say, 'No, we don't accept you,' and they send you back."
Anxiety over the sweeps led the Buncombe district to declare its schools "safe zones," where immigration authorities are not allowed to enter the campuses or round up students.
Parents were spooked by reports of unmarked black vans near schools, searching for undocumented students, said Thompson, the district's student-services director.
Erwin High Principal Jim Brown has been a mainstay in the school as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal, and principal spanning more than two decades. He's witnessed the school's demographic shift that brought more students from Mexico and Central America. The school is now 62 percent white, 22 percent Hispanic and 9 percent black.
While Brown and his staff tried to figure out what led to widespread parent and student frustration, immigrant families shared stories of feeling alienated from the school and unequal treatment of their children, said Mirian Porras Rosas, a community organizer with Nuestro Centro, a Latino rights advocacy organization.
"We thought we were doing a good job reaching out to our immigrant community, to our Latino community," Brown said. "We didn't really realize the perception that was out there that we weren't doing a fair job at reaching out to our immigrant kids."
Said Thompson, the district's student-services director: "I think if you were to ask somebody, before this incident, 'Is this an unfriendly environment?,' they would probably say no."
Beneath the Surface
But some community members said the anti-immigrant signs kindled racial tensions residing just beneath the surface in a community that bills itself as progressive and immigrant-friendly.
"It is about immigration, but it's also about racism and how it affects all communities of color. Unfortunately, that's not a quick fix," said Andrea Golden, a community activist with the Center for Participatory Change, an organization that pushes for racial equality in western North Carolina.
In the final presidential debate, Trump reiterated his pledge to build a border wall and deport the drug lords and "bad hombres" that migrate here. Two days later, he swung through suburban Asheville for a rally where he claimed that Clinton had allowed "thousands of criminal aliens" to remain in the U.S. because their home countries refused to take them back.
"They don't want to take back killers and drug dealers and all of the people that we're sending back," Trump said.
His statements stirred up familiar feelings for Keyla Estrada.
"When Trump talked about immigration, it made me very angry, because for him, we are the bad guys that ruin this country," she wrote in an email. "He doesn't think about others, what we suffer to come to this country, and the racism that we suffer once we're here. It made me feel very uncomfortable."
Vol. 36, Issue 11, Pages 1, 12-13Published in Print: November 2, 2016, as Election Lesson Reverberates in N.C. District