Work Samples

Political campaign language gets tricky around kids


Weakling. Loser. Lightweight. Clown. Choker.

If one North Jersey student hurled these insults at a classmate, the child would be sent to the principal or a counselor to talk. If such name-calling was repeated, the student would be at risk of violating the state’s harassment, intimidation and bullying law. If they made fun of a kid’s sweating, disability or gender, or lied and told friends another kid wet his pants, there would be consequences.

Forget the playground. That kind of language has become a staple of this year’s presidential election. They are the words of some of the candidates and their supporters.

It is campaign rhetoric as it has never been heard before and school administrators, teachers and students are all attempting to understand — not only what is happening, but how to discuss it.

“It definitely is something that contradicts everything we’ve been taught from all of the classes we’ve been taking — definitely anti-bullying — it goes against everything,” said Bergen County Academies senior Justin Linetski of Upper Saddle River.

There have been reports that students have taken on Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s words to taunt other kids. At a high school basketball game in Indiana, students held up pictures of Trump and chanted “Build a Wall” at the opposing team, which included Hispanic players. In Iowa, fans chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” at minority players on the other team. In Fairfax, Va., two third-graders went around the room pointing out “immigrants” who would be sent “home” if Trump is elected president.

No such incidents have been reported in North Jersey, but that doesn’t mean the rhetoric and tone of the campaign has gone unnoticed by kids, most of whom are too young to vote. It can be a tricky conversation in the classroom.

“Our students have shown a lot of maturity during these discussions,” John Lawlor, principal of Saddle Brook High School/Middle School, wrote in an email. “We have been fortunate that our students have not descended to the level of the candidates by hurling personal insults at each other in school, or during interscholastic events.”

Teachers try to focus on the issues and philosophical differences between parties, according to Lawlor. The rhetoric of some candidates can make adults and kids uncomfortable, but faculty around North Jersey are not ignoring the elections to avoid the language.

“We don’t shy away from the events, but I do try to balance that out in my classroom with the explanation that this is a very different way than past elections cycles have run,” said Mike Saulpaugh, coordinator of the social studies department at Paramus Catholic High School.

He tries to “raise the level of discourse, at least at our level, and decorum,” he said.

Trickle-down theory

Teachers and school staff must be politically neutral. But can they risk ignoring the language being used and stick to the process? What if the rhetoric starts trickling down? What if kids believe that, if presidential candidates can say these things without repercussions or consequences, it is OK for them, too?

“I definitely think that’s a concern of all of us and I think that’s why we are trying to be very proactive in having these conversations,” said Karen Vander Leest, director of social studies, K-12, for the Ramsey Public School district. “Character education has always been a very important part of our district K-12, so I think that this is just an extension of that, just a very public example of the types of interactions that we caution our students against and encourage them to not participate in.

“It just reinforces the need for our efforts to continue to promote healthy and constructive dialogue between students to be able to continue to build empathy and understanding and really have well-constructed arguments that are backed by evidence.”

Name-calling is one thing, but what about hateful language?

“What categorizes hate speech is something we always look at as a theme through our history courses, as well as our social classes, like sociology,” said Vander Leest. “It’s certainly something that’s interweaving its way into all of our courses.”

She and the faculty were recently discussing this issue while talking about an article in “Teaching Tolerance,” an educational publication. It talked about the idea of history teachers not always remaining neutral.

“You need to identify what the article calls red lines — when you’re going to intervene in the discussion,” said Vander Leest. “You need to own your own morality. As we’re teaching, if we don’t step in at those different places and really stop the students and say, we actually should view things from multiple perspectives and we should understand the reasoning maybe behind decisions students make. We don’t necessarily accept every opinion as valid if we believe that particular opinion is hurtful or harmful toward a particular group of people.”

Confusing signals

At different points in the campaign, Trump has said that Mexicans who come to this country bring crime and drugs and are rapists. He has said Muslims should be banned from entering the United States. He has said things that many found degrading to women. He is also the leading Republican candidate. But he has not been alone in taking the conversation to this level. Primary opponent Marco Rubio resorted to personal attacks in a debate, even questioning Trump’s manhood by noting the size of the businessman’s hands. (Rubio later said he regretted his line of personal attacks on Trump, which embarrassed his kids, made his wife unhappy and, he said, misrepresented who he is.)

It is confusing to even the most well-informed teen. Linetski, a political junkie and co-captain of the Academies debate team, finds the televised debates particularly bizarre.

“What I’m seeing in these debates, you simply can’t take that approach,” he said, comparing the presidential debates to academic debates. “If you were to go ahead and take this non-factual approach and not have any specific policies and devolve into name-calling and other sort of disgusting and sort of annoying stuff, you would be rejected. Your judges would give you low scores. Your peers would look lowly upon you.”

His debate team co-captain Amanda Kwon has been equally unimpressed by this first presidential election in which she can vote.

“In my opinion it’s just been pretty embarrassing the way that the candidates conduct themselves,” said Kwon. “The fact that people such as Donald Trump, they’re getting so much attention. … The way the media kind of parades him. I understand it’s lucrative and all, but it’s just embarrassing that that’s the best our country has to offer and that is who our country rallies behind.”

That was her opinion even before the Republican debate devolved into discussion of Trump’s hand size, making parents and their children report being uncomfortable watching a political debate together because of the sexual innuendo.

Living history lesson

While Linetski and Kwon are following the process and watching the debates on their own, not because of an assignment, students in other schools around North Jersey are being asked to pay attention to the campaigns and analyze what’s going on in class.

“Obviously it’s something that in history classes, as part of the curriculum, that students discuss,” said West Milford High School Principal Paul Gorski. “History teachers do a very good job of remaining objective. Focusing on the political aspects: What the caucus/primary system is, what does it mean when — in the case of Mr. Trump — a candidate that is not supported by party leadership is in the lead, things of that nature.

“As far as influencing student behavior, I haven’t seen that here.”

Lunch tables haven’t been divided by candidate support and he has seen no campaign buttons or T-shirts. If that time comes, however, Gorski said merely showing support for a candidate in a school-appropriate way cannot be a reason for discipline — no matter what that candidate has said.

“Students can make political statements,” said Gorski. “It’s a political statement. In and of itself, it’s not obscene, it’s not vulgar. It is a political statement. There are [free] speech considerations.”

While some schools find students more engaged in this campaign than in the past, Gorski said he doesn’t think it’s moving the meter very much in their lives at the moment. In the fall, however, you never know.

Are there students making political statements and is that causing any type of conflict at school?

“I haven’t seen that. I really haven’t, but I can’t predict the future,” he said. “I think every election kind of takes on its own life and narrative.”