Middle-school teacher Katie Hull Sypnieski arrived at Rosa Parks School the day after the presidential election to tears, fear and anger.
Sypnieski teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English-language learners at the K-8 school on 68th Avenue in south Sacramento.
“I think for those of us who work in urban education, it was just a rough day,” Sypnieski said. “I saw parents crying in the parking lot. There were teachers crying. There was a lot of shock, grief and anger and, from the kids, fear.”
Teachers in schools across the nation have had an unexpected new task this week, assuaging the fear of students from immigrant and minority families who believe they will be deported or bullied because Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. They also have had to quash an uptick in racist sentiment from students emboldened by the election.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump said he planned to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants and wanted to ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. He made disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants and condescending remarks about African Americans. He also pledged to rescind an executive order that protects students from deportation.
Sypnieski said her seventh- and eighth-grade students are aware of Trump’s statements. “At 11 and 12 years old, they hear a lot of things,” she said. “They hear from family members, the media and they are trying to make sense of it.”
The election has caused anxiety for students across the nation, according to a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Two-thirds of teachers who responded to the survey reported that Muslim children, children of immigrants and immigrants fear what will happen to their families after the election.
The students from Rosa Parks K-8 are primarily from low-income minority families. Twenty-nine percent are English learners, some are refugees and some are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented, Sypnieski said.
“A few children were in tears yesterday because their mothers are still in Mexico,” the teacher said. The children have been upset since they heard about the proposed wall, but now they are even more concerned, she said.
Sypnieski tried to make her students feel safer by doing something she generally wouldn’t do – telling them how she voted. The students, she said, needed to know she hadn’t voted for Trump.
“I haven’t shared my views in the past, but this election they wanted to know,” she said.
Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, said “it was a really rough day” after the election.
“Almost half of our student population are English-language learners,” Ferlazzo said. “The first thing that I heard was a student who wanted to know if la Migra (a term for immigration law enforcement) is coming to school today. There was just a very high degree of tension and fear.”
A letter sent to parents from Leonardo da Vinci K-8 school Principal Devon Davis on Thursday paints a troubling picture of frightened children and ramped up hate speech on the campus in Sacramento’s Hollywood Park neighborhood.
Davis told parents that she has had to tell students to stop making racist or hate-based statements. “Our students have a right to come to school and not hear racist or hate language,” she said. “Unfortunately, the recent political environment and the media have presented children with a dialogue that has not been shared, to my knowledge, on this campus before.”
Davis said some students are coming to school in tears and are scared to leave the classroom for lunch or recess for fear of being deported. “We have children that are terrified on our campus,” Davis wrote. “One third-grade class started on Wednesday with five children crying and fearing they would be deported. We had an assassination plot in fifth grade.”
The plot involved a few fifth-grade boys who were overheard before school talking about “killing Trump,” said Janet Weeks, a spokeswoman for Sacramento City Unified. “The principal called the boys into her office and talked to them about their inappropriate and disturbing behavior.”
On Wednesday, teachers Sypnieski and Ferlazzo encouraged their students to take action to help reduce their fears by writing letters to president-elect Trump.
“During the election, some of the things you said made us feel offended because you don’t think good of immigrants. My family and I hope you give us the opportunity to demonstrate we are good people – please,” wrote a teenager who came to the U.S. to flee gang violence in Honduras.
The boy would probably be targeted for death if he returns, Ferlazzo said.
A teen from Mexico beseeched Trump to let his family stay in the U.S.
“During the election some of the things you said made us feel sad because you offended us without knowing us,” the letter said. “My family and I hope you let us stay here, because here is everything.”
Sypnieski said her students’ overall message to the president-elect is that he might be a smart man but that he has made really bad choices.
One student was pretty angry when he first wrote the letter, she said. The boy showed Sypnieski his first draft, but then opted to change it a little.
“I don’t want to be like Trump,” he said.
Ferlazzo said the best thing teachers can do is to listen to students who are fearful and try to be reassuring. On Wednesday, he encouraged students to talk to one another about their fears. “You have a lot of frightened kids out there,” he said. “These are kids that fled wars, who were finally feeling safe, and now they are feeling fearful again.”
Roseville family therapist Theresa Thoits says teachers should remind students that nothing they fear is happening today.
“Uncertainty is scaring them,” Thoits said. Teachers can show students that there are plenty of instances in history where people’s biggest fears never materialized.
She also advised teachers to limit how long they allow students to dwell on their fears. “Don’t let them keep talking about it,” she said. “They need to borrow calmness from adults.”
Sacramento psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner Kenya Ballard said teachers can teach students about the American government system, its three branches of government, and the checks and balances in place to protect the United States.
“What I’ve seen in this presidential election is that there is so much verbiage about one person having so much power that they can decimate the American system, and that is just not true,” she said.
Sypnieski and Ferlazzo said the outcome of the election was a shock to Californians and that schools weren’t prepared to deal with the heightened fears of students.
“It was a pretty big surprise to everybody,” Ferlazzo said. “We are processing it. The students are processing it.”
That shock has sparked protests at college campuses and some high schools across the state, including at UC Davis, where 2,000 people swarmed across the campus and into the city streets Tuesday night.
“I think a lot of people were upset and it just grew and grew,” said Carli Hambley, a UC Davis student who joined the protest. “There were a lot of people in the street.”
A message from interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter and Vice Chancellor Adela de la Torre at UC Davis encouraged students to take advantage of walk-in urgent care mental health services or to call the campus advice nurse.
Walk-in support and “healing spaces” were available at the Undocumented Student Center, Cross Cultural Center, Women’s Research and Resources Center, and the Center for African Diaspora Student Success, as well as at resource centers for the LGBTQ, Latino and Native American communities.
University of California President Janet Napolitano will soon meet with undocumented students to address their concerns about pledges by Trump that he will end the DACA program, which allows undocumented students without criminal records to remain in the country on a renewable two-year work permit.
Napolitano herself carried out that protection in 2012 as President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security director.
“In light of yesterday’s election we know there is understandable consternation and uncertainty among members of the University of California community,” the letter reads. “The University of California is proud of being a diverse and welcoming place for students, faculty and staff with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.”
If, for example, DACA is revised, the university will work to mitigate the impacts on UC students, said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein.
On Wednesday evening, California State University, Sacramento, President Robert Nelsen also posted a message to students and employees encouraging those anxious about election results to make use of campus counseling programs. He reminded the campus community to go to the Red Folder website to learn how to identify and assist students in distress.
Nelsen reminded students that they have the right to peacefully protest on the public campus and encouraged them to exchange ideas peacefully.
“Despite our differences, we are still a Hornet Family, and we will always be strongest when we work together,” he said. “We must honor each other and stand in solidarity with the members of our community who feel afraid, unsafe or threatened. While many of us may feel uncertain about what may come, I can assure you that the university will be here to listen and offer support.”