Fear and taunting spark post-election classroom discussions

Principal Chad Velde-Cabrera was greeting students getting off the bus at the International Community School Wednesday morning when a student’s question stopped him in his tracks.

“Are they gonna send me back to my country?” the boy asked.

International Community School is a DeKalb County elementary school where half of the students are immigrants and refugees. The boy’s sentiment was shared by countless others that day, Velde-Cabrera said. He was prepared.

“I sent an email to my staff that morning, letting them know our role is to carve out time today for kids to talk, express their feelings, get it out there,” he said. “Through whatever they’re feeling, they (need to) know they have classmates and a teacher to support them and make sure nothing’s going to happen to them.”

Metro Atlanta schools are seeing some effects of a nasty election play out in their halls as students seek answers to lingering questions and teachers react to the election results.

Social media has become a slide show for the taunting taking place across the country. In a metro Detroit lunchroom, students chanted “build a wall,” toward their Hispanic and Latino classmates. A teacher in Owasso, Okla., made profane statements about the election, calling voters lazy and racist.

At DeKalb County’s Cross Keys High School, two teachers were suspended with pay for making disparaging comments about undocumented residents, citing President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration stance.

“Threatening, abusive behavior will not be tolerated in any way and such behavior will be dealt with without delay,” DeKalb County School District officials said in a statement.

The principal at Dacula High School in Gwinnett County wrote a message on the school’s website over the weekend supporting a Muslim teacher after the teacher posted on Facebook that someone — likely a student, she said — left a note on her desk saying her head scarf “isn’t allowed anymore” and suggested she “tie it around your neck & hang yourself with it.”

Mairah Teli, a 24-year-old language arts teacher, said she posted the note to “raise awareness about the reality and climate of our community.” Teli, a California native who grew up in Gwinnett, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday,“I feel children feel safe making comments that are racist or sexist because of” Donald Trump’s victory, she said.

Her post was liked and shared by thousands of people.

“We want you to know that we take any threat against a teacher seriously and are doing all we can to find the student involved and hold them accountable,” Dacula High School Principal Bryan Long wrote. “As we do in Dacula, we will use a difficult situation to bring us together rather than pulling us apart! Let’s rally around Ms. Teli and show her that this note is not America or Dacula.”

At Georgia Tech, a professor canceled classes the day after the election. University officials say Jeffrey A. Davis, an associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department, will apologize to students and offer a make-up class.

“I don’t know about you, but I was up way too late last night,” Davis wrote in an email to his students last week. “I would like to propose that we take today to rest and reflect about what happened yesterday. Personally, I am shocked and dumbfounded as to the events that occurred yesterday.”

Davis later said through a university spokeswoman he sent the email as a way to support his students.

Coffee County school board member Bryan Coffee said his wife, a fourth-grade teacher, came home the day after the election saying several of her black students said they were going to have to leave, that Trump would be sending them back to Africa.

“You hear that they’re fearful of government,” he said. “You hate to hear that sort of thing from kids.”

It’s proof more needs to be done to inform students on issues that don’t necessarily originate in the classroom, he said.

DeKalb County teacher Elizabeth Peyton wrote in a We Are Teachers blog that she allowed her students to vocalize their thoughts the day after the election, which she called “the most difficult day I’ve had” in her 10-year teaching career.

She wrote: “When the kids came to my class, I let them write in their journals for (10) or (15) minutes to get their thoughts in order. Then I told them they had the rest of class to say whatever they felt they needed to say. It was mostly questions, and every class period progressed from the general — how could this happen? — to more specific fears. Can I be arrested at school if I’m undocumented? How old do I have to be to act as legal guardian for my younger siblings if our parents are deported? Will Muslims really have to register, and if so, should we try to hide?

“So I answered their questions as best I could … but I couldn’t tell them that everything will be okay.”

Velde-Cabrera, the principal at DeKalb County’s International Community School, said the student fears are heightened by the easy access to information through the Internet, accessible at home and through smartphones.

The Internet “really changes how kids access the information,” he said. “Compared to when I was a kid and Bill Clinton was becoming president, I knew absolutely nothing about the election.”

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