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Superintendents, communicators plan response to election rhetoric

By CONNIE POTTER

When more than 400 Forest Grove High School students walked out of classes last spring to protest a "Build A Wall" banner, students in neighboring districts quickly staged their own walkouts in solidarity. Pretty soon, students in different parts of the state and nation joined in.

Heading into the new school year, school officials throughout Oregon are planning for more potential fallout from a November election campaign reeling with divisive political rhetoric.

A group of Washington County superintendents and communications staff convened in early August to develop strategies for preempting any disruptive behavior in the schools. The walkouts had come as a surprise, and they want to be better prepared in case similar disruptions happen in the fall.

Forest Grove Superintendent Yvonne Curtis said her advice is to approach the election as "a teachable moment."

"The current political climate provides a wonderful opportunity for us to teach students how to exercise free speech without hurtful, hateful, disruptive speech and bullying behavior," she said.

How that evolves in the schools may vary by district and even by school, but districts would like to have some consistency, especially around disciplinary action.

"We're all grappling with some of the same issues," said Beth Graser, director of communications for the Hillsboro School District.

She said Hillsboro Superintendent Mike Scott, who convened the meeting, plans to draft some guidelines, based on their conversation, and share with all superintendents in the county.

In Hillsboro, one request of some Hispanic leaders is for a more culturally responsive curriculum. Graser said the district is committed to exploring ways to do that and will have a team working on that this school year.

A priority in Forest Grove, said Curtis, will be to maintain a safe, respectful, inclusive learning environment. That means intervening when discussions become hurtful or hateful while staying neutral when it comes to politics. In a letter to staff, she said employees must keep political sentiments to themselves while on the job. Work is not the place to offer political opinions or try to sway others to a particular candidate or position, she said.

That's especially important in the classroom, said Curtis. Class time is designated for the presentation and teaching of adopted curriculum. Discussions regarding political issues unrelated to the curriculum should be avoided. Staff should not allow speech that is lewd, vulgar or offensive or that causes a material disruption to the learning and school environment.

"We expect every educator to do everything in their power to ensure neutral classrooms and schools that are both physically and emotionally safe for all students," she wrote.

One of the challenges facing staff, she said, is balancing students' First Amendment rights of free speech with the district's mission of providing a safe and welcoming learning environment. In the case of the walkout, some students and community thought the "Build A Wall" sign was an expression of free speech, but school officials said it disrupted learning and created what some students felt was an unsafe environment.

While discussions in support of or against particular candidates are not allowed, Curtis said teachers do need to be ready to teach in planned, intentional ways the responsibilities of citizenship amid this political climate.

One of students' responsibilities, she said, is to remain in school and attend to their studies. That's a message the county superintendents relayed last spring not only to students, but to their parents and to some of the outside leaders who helped support the walkout.

A request students made last spring, in the aftermath of the walkout, was for help in knowing how to have difficult conversations with peers who hold opposing viewpoints.

"We need to teach students how to converse when they have differing opinions in ways that uphold the dignity of every person," said Curtis.

Over the summer, Forest Grove equity leaders worked on strategies to help teachers know how to respond to students around political questions and comments. While district policy doesn't allow staff to offer personal political opinions, that doesn't stop kids from asking, said Chandra Cooper, principal at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School.

"We have 10- and 11-year-olds, and they don't have a filter," she said. "I'll be walking through the cafeteria, and kids are asking me, 'Do you like Trump? Who are you voting for?'"

During teacher in-service, Cooper and her equity team worked with staff on basic responses that they might use with students. For example, if a student asks a teacher whom he or she is voting for, a response might be:  "That's a good question. I am going to study their positions and vote for the candidate who has everyone's best interest at heart."

To the question "Can Trump really build a wall and keep Mexicans out of the United States?” a teacher might respond: "The U.S. government has three branches of government and a system of checks and balances. Let's research the office of president and find out the answer to your question."

All of these conversations need to happen within a framework of mutual respect, so it is important for teachers to establish clear norms and agreements in their classrooms to keep the discussions appropriate and productive, Cooper said.

"It's kind of scary ground right now," she said. "We've always had political candidates and elections. But now there's just so much emotion. Some of our kids are really fearful of the process and uncertain how the outcome could affect them."

Handling emotions: How educators are planning to help students through political uncertainty