A profane election poses problems for educators

So far in the 2016 presidential campaign, the most talked-about stories have centered on name-calling, sexual assault, violence, threats to jail one of the candidates, a foreign policy stance consisting of a threat to “bomb the — out of” the Islamic State and an explicit rehashing of former President Bill Clinton’s infidelity while in office.

That presents a problem for teachers trying to keep their classes G-rated.

"All summer, I've been thinking, 'How am I going to teach this election?'" said Mark Higgins, chair of the social studies department at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford. "This is not like any other election I've seen or read about in our country."

Higgins and other teachers across the region say they have made an extra effort this year to steer lessons away from the candidates and toward policy issues just in order to keep curse words and sexual innuendo out of their classrooms.

Cindy Carvalho, who has been teaching social studies at Leonard J. Tyl Middle School in Montville for nearly a decade, said she teaches U.S. politics and government a little differently each year.

But there are certain things she’s been avoiding in 2016.

Playing footage — even a short clip — of the two debates so far, for example, is off the table.

“I can’t really show the debates,” she said. “This last one was not appropriate.”

During that debate, held at Washington University in St. Louis, the first question was about whether the candidates felt they are “modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today's youth.”

Anderson Cooper of CNN then asked Republican nominee Donald Trump to explain a video recording released by the New York Times in which he said he kissed women and grabbed their genitals without their consent.

“You brag that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Cooper asked. Trump denied the charges, calling the tape "locker room talk."

That kind of discourse, even if it airs on C-SPAN, doesn’t belong in a classroom, Carvalho said.

“What I’m try to do its focus on the platform, instead of in the candidates’ more salacious backgrounds,” she said. “It’s kind of a tightrope act.”

Carvalho said she heard some fellow social studies teachers say they're avoiding the topic of the election altogether.

They wouldn't be alone: More than 40 percent of teachers in a survey by Teaching Tolerance, a division of the nonpartisan Southern Poverty Law Center, said they were hesitant to even address the election in class.

That hesitation isn't limited to teachers. More than two-thirds of the teachers responding to the survey said students, especially those who are immigrants, the children of immigrants or Muslim, have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.

Using educational products released by Scholastic and The New York Times, Carvalho said she has been sticking as strictly as possible to the Constitution and the basic platforms of the two parties, and staying far away from the personal attacks launched by two major 2016 candidates and their campaign surrogates.

“I try to be as objective as I possibly can for the kids,” she said. “I’m just trying to give the background and the context for it instead of these blanket statements ... I want them to think for themselves and how they feel about the issues.”

At St. Bernard School in Uncasville on Friday, a redhead wearing a dark suit and red tie pulled off a decent Trump impression as he described how the Republican nominee's tax policies would affect the cost of child care.

Almost the whole student body of the private Catholic school sat restlessly in the school's auditorium for an election forum sponsored by the student council pitting representatives of the two major parties against each other on the two parties' platforms.

Exactly as sophomore Joshua Terry was finishing his remarks on behalf of the GOP, the Washington Post released a story online quoting a woman who claimed Trump had sat beside her at a Manhattan nightclub in the early 1990s and reached his hand under her skirt to touch her — only the latest in a stream of similar accusations against Trump this week.

Shortly after, the students lined up in the cafeteria to vote in a mock election.

The St. Bernard debate stayed civil, straying only briefly into the subject of emails and "inappropriate comments."

But it was a far cry from real life, where the actual candidates on stage in St. Louis devoted significant time to "locker room talk" and Trump referred to Clinton as "the devil."

"We've never seen anything like this before in history," social studies teacher Jennifer Frazier said as she watched her students fill out their ballots and feed them into a voting machine borrowed from the Montville registrar of voters. "We've discussed the character assassination ... but we generalized it to say inappropriate comments are unacceptable by anyone."

She hesitates to discuss the specifics even with her older students, some of whom could be old enough to vote in a real election next year.

In his first year teaching social studies to fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Norwich, Glenn Frease hasn't shied away from the election. He's spent the school year introducing the Electoral College, the responsibilities of the president, election issues like immigration and job creation, and even the debates.

But Frease said self-censorship has become a bigger part of his job than he expected.

"It's definitely not the way the election process has been done before," he said. "We're in uncharted territory with this."

"I'm trying to do my best with sticking to what's the important stuff," he added. "How the candidates feel, what they really believe — not getting into personal trash-talking of each other and tearing each other apart."

Hopefully, Higgins said, the crude language and violent insults won't become a permanent part of students' understanding of the electoral process.

"I feel at peace with the idea that this is how it has to be this year," he said. "I've been honest with them, in saying 'I have to figure out how to teach this to you guys because this is not like an election that I've seen before, and hopefully not like one that we'll see again.'"

Ledyard Middle School Principal Chris Pomroy said he hasn't had a formal discussion with the school's staff about how to teach the election without pushing the boundaries of appropriateness.

But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t come up.

“It’s very difficult, especially considering how divided these two candidates are. Saying things to kids ... might suggest that you are supporting one over the other.”

Pomroy said he prefers to try to avoid the topic of the campaign when talking to students, even though they are often the ones to bring it up.

“It is much, much safer to try to avoid the topic altogether,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that the topic of the country’s next president is off limits — it just will probably have to wait until that person is sworn in.

“Regardless of who wins, we’ll watch the inauguration as a school,” Pomroy said. “It’s history, no matter how you look at it.”

m.shanahan@theday.com

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