The effects of Donald Trump’s victory have been felt by many, including those too young to have cast a vote themselves. Kids and teens in some parts of the country, worried about what Trump’s election will mean, showed up to schools this week with lots of questions, as teachers and therapists brought their trauma training to bear in counseling distraught students.
On Wednesday, Memphis, Tenn., psychotherapist Quinn Gee was called in by school administrators for emergency sessions with three students, children of undocumented immigrants who were concerned they would lose their citizenship and that their parents would be deported. One of the students didn’t show up to class. Another was acting out. A third was self-harming in class, and Gee placed her on suicide watch.
“I was expecting [this reaction] from adults, absolutely,” Gee said. “I wasn’t prepared for this from children.”
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Trauma “occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and helplessness,” according to the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Children who are recent immigrants, members of a racial or ethnic minority, or who are poor are more likely to have trauma in their past, and therefore to be more vulnerable to future traumatic events.
At Riverside Polytechnic High School in California, school counselor Yuridia Nava said that by the end of the first period the morning after the election, it was clear that something was wrong. Teachers and students were in tears. Fights were threatening to break out. So administrators huddled and decided to handle the election results like a trauma crisis event. Teachers talked to all 2,700 students and made clear that counseling resources were available. Nava pulled together an “empathy forum” in the middle of the day, where about 30 students gathered in the library to talk about how they were feeling. The session went on for almost two hours.
In Chicago, one music teacher never ended up giving his music lesson, instead facilitating a discussion about the students’ reactions to the election, Education Week reported.
“The election seemed to bring back memories of trauma that students had experienced,” Casey Fuess, who teaches at Lindblom Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s South Side, told the publication. One student was in tears, fearing she would be deported to Mexico. Other students listening to her started crying as well.
“We have not, as a nation, experienced anything like this before,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a national education organization advocating for LGBTQ students. Byard said that the only event that occurred in her lifetime that evoked similar trauma in young people was Sept. 11 — but then, there was a sense of solidarity among Americans. Not so today. “That is what’s been shattered now.”
Schools districts across the country sent notes Wednesday to families, urging everyone to stand together and set a positive example for the children.
“We must ensure that our students feel safe by providing safe and respectful learning communities,” wrote Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools.
The school district has already assembled a “Post Election Resources” page, with the first resource listed being a handout on how to manage trauma.
Kids are responding to a number of perceived threats. In part it’s a moral disconnect, said Rebecca Lallier, a counselor at the Dothan Brook elementary school in Vermont. Candidates discussed “explicitly sexual content,” she said; meanwhile, “we teach sexual abuse prevention.”
Students also expressed fear based on things that Trump has said on the campaign trail or sentiments espoused by his supporters. School counselors across the country are hearing that children are scared they or their families might be deported under Trump’s administration, said Katherine Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists. Other kids tell their counselors that they fear discrimination or violence because they are Muslim or identify as LGBTQ.
“I’m trying to make this a positive thing, not a negative thing,” said Glen Pandolfino, an economics teacher and dean at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan. He is encouraging his older students to register to vote, so they can hold their politicians accountable. He is working on a certification program in “restorative justice,” an innovative educational technique where students who find themselves in a conflict to talk it out — for the victim to understand what happened, and for the aggressor to understand what they did and why it was wrong.
But this week has been more of a time for listening and healing. Pandolfino estimated that about one-third of his school’s 1,300 students sought some sort of counseling resource.