Hostility, harassment, censorship: Schools are political conflict zones – USA TODAY

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  • A new study based on surveys with hundreds of high school principals finds partisan politics are leading to more conflict at school.
  • The problems are particularly bad at schools in purple communities, those whose voters are close to evenly split Republican-Democrat.
  • High rates of principals in purple communities report a dramatic increase between 2018 and 2022 in parents or community members challenging instruction, and in harassment of LGBTQ+ students.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that partisan politics have trickled into education, nor that the past couple of years have seen a wave of legislation and outcry targeting lessons and books about racism, sexual orientation and gender identity. Until now, though, it’s been difficult to grasp how the phenomenon has affected what’s happening within school buildings. 

A new study, based on a survey of nearly 700 nationally representative high school principals, helps complete the picture. The culture wars have taken an immense toll on many schools, the study by University of California researchers finds, leading to increased rates of hostility and harassment among teens and adults alike.

According to the study, these trends contribute to and are enabled by the chilling effects of today’s hyper-politicized environment. And such conflict has become particularly pervasive in so-called “purple communities,” congressional districts where Donald Trump received between 45% and 54.9% of the vote in 2020. 

“Something’s happening in purple communities,” said John Rogers, an education professor and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access who co-authored the study. “In many different instances, the level of conflict has grown dramatically – far more than in red and blue communities.”

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Nearly half of the principals who participated in this survey said there was “more” or “much more” community conflict during the 2021-22 school year than there had been pre-pandemic. 

The main sources of conflict: teaching and learning about race and racism, policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ students, children’s access to certain books in the library and social-emotional learning. With each issue area, at least a third of principals reported instances of parents or community members challenging or trying to limit the learning material or policy.  

The country over the past year or so has witnessed an explosion of fights over which books should be stocked at school libraries, and dozens of states and school boards chose to ban the teaching of critical race theory or reverse policies that supported LGBTQ+ students.

Across the issue areas, schools in purple communities saw more conflict than those in both red and blue ones. Principals in these communities were, for example, nearly twice as likely (24%) to have dealt with multiple instances of individuals trying to limit or challenge LGBTQ+ students’ rights. Nearly two in three purple area principals also reported at least one instance of individuals challenging instruction about issues of race and racism. 

In addition, principals in purple communities were more likely to cite multiple instances of students making demeaning or hateful remarks about their peers with differing political views or of similar tensions creating contentious classroom environments. And the rate of principals in these communities reporting instances of students making hostile and demeaning remarks about LGBTQ+ students more than tripled between 2018 and 2022, from 10% to 32%.

“It’s hard not to see a relationship between the political climate and the student interactions,” Rogers said. 

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Trust, or lack thereof, emerged as another major sticking point in purple districts. The rate of principals in these areas reporting multiple instances of a parent or community member challenging a teacher’s information or media source nearly tripled between 2018 and 2022, from 12% to 35%.

“In these politically contested communities, there was huge pressure on parents to challenge their schools, to see public institutions as suspect and to raise these really difficult questions,” Rogers said. 

There is “so much heat on us right now from these parent groups that we’re treading carefully,” said one principal in a purple Ohio community, who like all the study’s participants was given a pseudonym. Some teachers at his school have questioned whether they can teach about the civil rights movement and Jim Crow without being accused of conveying that all white people are bad. Others have considered retirement.

“We are trying to weather this storm and see if we can get through it,” the principal said.

Little support for teachers, students who need it most

This year, principals in purple communities were significantly less likely than they were in 2018 to say that their districts offer professional development for teaching about sensitive subjects or their leaders have made statements in support of equity and inclusion practices. 

In blue communities, the rate of principals saying their school or district provided professional development in how to conduct productive discussions of controversial issues rose from 45% in 2019 to 49% in 2022. But in red communities, it dropped from 40% to 27%. Purple communities saw the steepest decline, from 54% to 33%. 

“Those declines are particularly striking because they’re occurring in the places where there’s the greatest need,” said Joseph Kahne, an education professor at UC Riverside who also co-authored the study. 

At the same time principals in purple areas reported higher rates of harassment and conflict over differing viewpoints, their districts are providing less training on how to discuss controversial issues. “That’s really the adverse and chilling effect of all this conflict,” he said.

One principal in a purple California community said he would, in an ideal world, love for his teachers to talk about politics and current events. “But unfortunately my parents cannot handle it, so I indicated that it’s not appropriate for them to teach these subjects in class,” the principal told researchers. “This is not me or my admin team being afraid of conflict. We are taking a pragmatic approach so that our school can function with as little disruption as possible and hopefully without violence.”

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Sizable percentages of principals in communities of all political leanings said conflict is rare and that their students and teachers are encouraged to engage with difficult topics. 

Still, UCLA’s Rogers predicts the culture wars will continue to warp how many schools operate, discouraging many from fostering the kinds of dialogue and critical thinking needed to prepare students for a healthy democracy. 

Rogers pointed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is positioning himself for the 2024 Republican primaries. In a recent interview, Pompeo declared Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to be the most dangerous person in the world. 

Pompeo “sees it as a strategic advantage, leaning into culturally divisive issues related to public education,” Rogers said. “And that creates this extraordinary vulnerability for educators and ultimately for students.”

The upshot of that political strategy, according to Rogers: teachers who are scared of having important conversations about race and identity and current events with their students. And teachers, he said, “are going to be wary about providing young people with the sort of support and protection that they need to feel safe and learn.”

But both Rogers and Kahne, citing their follow-up interviews with principals, said they’re optimistic about students’ ability to demand teaching that both challenges and includes rather than comforts and excludes. 

“I do think that part of this virtuous circle has to necessarily involve young people moving forward,” Rogers said. “They need to be part of the community who says we want something different.”

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.