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Strategies can help address election-related angst in schools

By CONNIE POTTER

Educators typically love presidential election years because they offer rich opportunities for teaching about civics and the election process.

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Rob Larson

But this year is different, says Rob Larson, director of Oregon Leadership Network (OLN). 

Many teachers are wary – and even fearful – of talking with students about an election that is as inflammatory and polarizing as this one. Districts are also uneasy about the prospect of student protests, similar to the walkout last spring at Forest Grove High School.

What to do?

OLN – a statewide network of school districts and others committed to equity in schools – gathered its state steering committee in early September to share insights and mull strategies. By sharing experiences, they said, districts can be proactive, learn together and find ways to promote both equity and civility in their schools.

The bottom line, Larson said, is that educators have an obligation to keep schools safe for students, both physically and emotionally.

“If students feel like they are being bullied or harassed, they can’t learn well because of the fear and anxiety and loss of sleep,” he said.

While it might be tempting to try to ignore all the campaign rhetoric, that’s not realistic, said Larson.

“This is happening across the state,” he said. “Every family in the state that has a television is hearing this language. Kids are hearing parents and family members argue about it.” 

It’s important to give teachers guidance in how to have thoughtful classroom discussions while supporting students who feel threatened, he said. Schools also must balance the constitutional right to free speech with making sure students are not being offended, he added. 

The walkout at Forest Grove High School last spring – triggered by two students hanging a “Build A Wall” sign in the cafeteria – ultimately became a constructive learning opportunity, where students demonstrated peacefully and engaged in respectful dialogue, said Larson.

“It became a positive thing, but that did not happen by accident,” he said. “It happened because the district has been working for a long time on equity. The district was prepared to handle the circumstances the way they handled it.”

Larson believes districts need to have a level of readiness so they can be prepared if similar protests happen in their communities. OLN offers a place to have that conversation, he said, and for districts to share what is actually happening in their buildings and the strategies they are employing to deal with it.

There are a number of good resources available to help schools navigate sensitive election topics, said Larson, and OLN will continue to share them on its blog. Here are a few: