School & District Management

Principals Dealing With Hostility and Division in the Age of Trump, Survey Shows

By Catherine Gewertz — March 13, 2019 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s high school principals are contending with hostile clashes between students and a swirl of other problems that have been inflamed by the political division and heated rhetoric during Donald Trump’s presidency, according to survey results released Wednesday.

The report, released by the University of California-Los Angeles, paints a picture of schools deeply affected by angry confrontations between students, and by confusion and fear arising from their growing distrust of information, whether it comes from mainstream news outlets or social media.The study also shows schools struggling mightily with polarizing debates about gun safety and immigration enforcement and with the ripple effects of opioid addiction.

UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access studied 505 principals in communities that are nationally representative regionally, racially, and by family income and political party affiliation. In an online survey in the summer of 2018, the principals discussed how those five problems affected their schools during that year, and how they’d responded. Forty of the principals also participated in longer, followup interviews.

Almost all of the principals in the survey said they’d experienced at least two of the five problems UCLA described. Seventy percent reported dealing with four or more. More than 30 percent are juggling all five.

‘We Had Fists Flying’

One principal described the environment at his school in a politically divided county in Wisconsin. Recalling a day when some students wore hats to school showing their allegiance to President Trump, he said, a politically liberal student “took offense to the Make America Great [Again] hat and the next thing you know we had fists flying in the hallway and what not.”

The study said: “Our findings make clear that in the age of Trump, America’s high schools are greatly impacted by rising political incivility and division.”

The study’s author, education professor John Rogers, called for schools to focus on making themselves “relationship-centered” and meeting students’ needs for support, while building “social trust and understanding” in their communities.

But he also said that addressing the problems principals face will likely require broader educational and social policies that “address fear, isolation, and distrust.”

The UCLA researchers examined links between principals’ struggles in the five key problem areas, and recent presidential voting patterns of their surrounding communities.

They found that in congressional districts where the majority voted for Trump in 2016, principals were more likely to report political incivility.

Linking Problems to Voting Patterns

They were less likely than colleagues in anti-Trump districts to say that their students are concerned about immigrant enforcement policies. And in those districts, leaders of predominantly white high schools were the least likely group of principals to say that they’ve talked with students about promoting tolerance and respect toward immigrants.

Rogers said in an interview that he’s not arguing that the dynamics he found in schools are “the direct product” of Trump and his policies. Some, such as students using bigoted remarks, is a problem that’s dogged schools for decades, and others, such as mistrust of information sources and political division, have been building in society for years. But they’ve been “amplified” by the political climate that marks the Trump presidency, Rogers said. Fear about immigration enforcement, however, is more clearly attributable to Trump’s actions, he said.

Deborah Temkin, the senior director for education research at Child Trends, which studies children’s well-being, said that linking problems like incivility and distrust to Trump’s policies—or anything outside school walls—can divert educators’ focus from productive solutions.

“The data collection [in the UCLA study] wasn’t set up to show causality to any one factor in the environment,” she said. “And placing external blame for what’s happening can distract schools from the steps they can take to make their environments more safe.”

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the study demonstrates the inextricable link between schools and society first outlined by education philosopher John Dewey.

“Schools reflect society, and society is polarized and embittered,” he said. “It would be surprising if the students didn’t bring that into schools. Although the results are depressing, I don’t find them surprising.”

The UCLA research team examined how geography and racial makeup of schools affect their experience with the problems they studied. For instance, rural and small-town schools, and predominantly white schools, are more affected by problems stemming from opioid addiction, and racially mixed schools are more affected by political divisions and untrustworthy information.

Here are highlights of what principals reported in the five problem areas UCLA researchers surveyed:

Division, Incivility and Hostility

  • 9 in 10 said incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has affected their school communities. The overwhelming majority report contentious classroom environments, hostile exchanges outside class, and demeaning remarks about people’s political viewpoints.
  • 8 in 10 report students have made derogatory remarks about people’s race or ethnic group.
  • 6 in 10 said students have made derogatory remarks about immigrants.
  • 8 in 10 said they’ve disciplined students for “uncivil behavior” toward other students in the past year.

Untrustworthy Information

  • More than 8 in 10 said they’ve dealt with students making claims based on unreliable media sources or rejecting the information a teacher is using in class.
  • More than 9 in 10 said students have “shared hateful posts on social media.”

The Opioid Crisis

  • More than 6 in 10 say their schools have been affected by the opioid crisis. Addictions in students’ families have created worry and distraction, and made them miss class. Parents are more absent too, offering less support to students and participating less often in school activities.

Immigration Enforcement

  • More than two-thirds said federal immigration enforcement policies and their attendant rhetoric has harmed their students’ well-being and learning, and made it tough for parents to support their children’s learning.

Gun Violence

  • More than 9 in 10 said their school grapples with problems linked to the threat of gun violence, including students fearing for their safety, losing focus in class or being absent.
  • One in five reported incidents involving firearms on their campuses.
  • One in three said they’d received threats of mass shootings or bombings in the past year.

Zimmerman, who’s written about the importance of teaching controversial topics in schools, said he was surprised that the report didn’t address the role that curriculum and instruction can play in addressing the problems principals face. Rogers said that teaching “absolutely figures in” as part of the solution. But he chose to focus his report on the emotional support that principals and their staff members can provide by building a good school climate.

Too often, Rogers said, principals faced with the problems he studied can feel pressured to take action by “taking the first and easiest option to show they are doing something.” For instance, in response to fears about gun violence, many principals reported projects to “harden” their campuses. But those responses, however well intentioned, overlook important steps that can have long-lasting, profound effects, Rogers said.

To build a deeper sense of safety among students, principals might consider “enacting and modeling a set of democratic dynamics with their faculty and students, so they’re showing what it looks like to have respectful, civil dialog amidst diversity,” he said. “They’re showing what it means to interrogate and examine where knowledge comes from, how our information is tied to systems of power, so that faculty and students can think about these issues and develop those skills.”

Fostering Dialog

The principal of a diverse school in Connecticut embodies the approach that Rogers believes can inform school leaders who are facing the problems he studied. Here’s how the principal described his approach:

Students at our school occasionally will get caught up in conflicts about racism, the economy, presidential politics, or about what law ought to be passed or not passed. About how things ought to be,” he said.

“When conflicts come up we try to use them as an opportunity for growth and learning. The fact that there are social challenges in the world is not something that we’re going to hide [from] our teenagers... People very often underestimate what teenagers can handle. Teenagers know what’s going on.
... I tell teachers that their job is to facilitate dialogue and learning; I don’t want any sort of dialogue to be smashed. ... I want teachers to have the attitude of there’s nothing wrong with disagreement.

“We need to be able to foster and model how to properly do this for our kids. We desire for students to have a strong approach to collecting, reasoning [about], and using information in a fair way. Hopefully there is a strong academic sense of how we vet facts, what is or is not the truth. And then from there, based on that information, [we want them to] make a decision about what’s best to do. But also [we want them to] develop [a] perspective on the world, grounded in empathy, and to [understand]:

“Just because something is not my lived experience doesn’t mean that I can’t step into my classmate’s shoes and say, ‘What does the world look like from your perspective?’”

See also:

Photo: President Donald Trump gestures to people cheering on the tarmac as he arrives in West Palm Beach, Fla., on March 8.—Carolyn Kaster/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.