Survey: overall political climate shines light on rifts in schools

Survey: overall political climate shines light on rifts in schools

(Calif.) High school students and administrators throughout the country are struggling to deal with a broad set of social issues at the forefront of the Trump presidency—including hostility towards racial groups or immigrants, opioid abuse and gun violence.

An online survey of school principals conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles—found that increasingly amounts of class time is being taken up in various efforts to respond to today’s most hot-button issues.

In many cases, said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and the survey author, the students are suffering.

 “In the face of these societal challenges, it is students themselves who bear the brunt of the impact,” wrote Rogers. “Many students feel greater anxiety, stress, and vulnerability, and parental opioid misuse and aggressive immigration enforcement have both resulted in greater material deprivation for young people—unstable housing, insecure food supplies, and a lack of other necessary supports.”

The survey sought to examine how students and educators within America’s high schools are affected by five specific challenges: the current political division and hostility; disputes over truth, facts and the reliability of sources; opioid addiction; the threat of immigration enforcement; the threats of gun violence on school campuses.

One doesn’t need to look far to find examples of schools working through such problems.

Earlier this month, a photo of a group of California students from Newport-Mesa Unified high school and Newport Harbor High gathered around a swastika formed by red Solo cups, doing a Nazi salute went viral on social media. This past weekend, fliers displaying Nazi symbols were found posted throughout Newport Harbor High campus.

Meanwhile, attendance rates plummeted following separate threats of violence at the end of February at both Lincoln Park High School in Lincoln Park, Michigan, and at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Florida.

And schools are increasingly reporting various challenges in helping students who are dealing with fears of deportation or opioid-addicted family members–or even their own addiction issues. Many have responded by bringing in additional counselors and working to connect children to resources provided by other agencies and non-profit groups.

Findings from the UCLA report are based on a nationally representative online survey of 505 high school principals conducted in the summer of 2018, as well as follow up interviews with a representative group of principals.

Virtually every school, regardless of region, community type, or racial makeup was impacted by these challenges, according to Rogers, who wrote that more than nine in ten principals surveyed reported experiencing at least three of the five challenges, and more than three in ten have experienced all five.

About 92 percent of principals said their school has faced problems related to the threat of gun violence, 89 percent reported that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community, and 83 percent found such tensions were intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information and the increasing use of social media furthering the divide students, schools and communities.

At the same time, 68 percent of the principals surveyed say federal immigration enforcement policies and the political rhetoric around the issue have negatively impacted students and their families, and 62 percent said their schools have been harmed by opioid abuse.

Rogers said as principals deal with the problems that arise, time is taken away from efforts to meet students’ academic needs and enhance the quality of teaching and learning.

“The average principal in the study reports spending six and a half hours a week addressing the five societal challenges,” he wrote. “One in four principals spend the equivalent of one workday a week responding to the challenges.”

Principals often reported spending extra time on supervision, school discipline and community outreach related to school incivility and challenges with untrustworthy information and social media, according to the survey.

Across the five challenges, many said they also spend more time talking and meeting with students and parents, connecting students and families with community and social services, and planning and providing professional development to help teachers address the challenges.

Some principals have even intervened with immigration authorities on behalf of students and families, Rogers said. Others reported using their own money to help pay utility bills or help with rent for students whose families have been affected by opioid abuse, while some have implemented programs that send students home with backpacks full of food for the weekend.

Though nearly all schools reported dealing with at least some of these problems, the opioid crisis was found to be experienced most severely in the Northeast, while the threat of immigration enforcement where the greatest impact is felt in the West. The survey also showed that schools located in congressional districts that voted strongly for Donald Trump in 2016 are slightly more likely than other schools to experience political incivility and the opioid crisis.

In general, however, Rogers said the differences across regions are relatively modest.

He did note that when multiple challenges occur within a school site, they interact with one another in complex and mutually reinforcing ways.

“It is likely that political division makes schools more vulnerable to the spread of untrustworthy information, just as the spread of untrustworthy information often contributes to division and hostility,” Rogers wrote. “And the fear and distress associated with opioid misuse, threats to immigrant communities, and gun violence, increases the possibilities for division and distrust amongst students and between educators and the broader community.”

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