East Palo Alto students and teachers grapple with uncertainty following Trump’s election

 

On the morning that President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that flag burners should have their citizenship revoked, East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy government teacher Kyle Hagenburger immediately edited his lesson plan to incorporate the incendiary tweet into a class on the First Amendment.

“Can you burn the American flag? The answer is yes,” Hagenburger told his class of seniors at the East Palo Alto charter school, explaining how the First Amendment protects freedom of expression and engaging the students in a discussion.

At Phoenix Academy, a predominately Latino school marked by murals of linked hands inscribed with values like “unity,” “power,” and “respect,” and colorful depictions of quotes by Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, Trump’s election prompted the same senior government class to spearhead a protest against his plans to deport undocumented immigrants and his hateful rhetoric towards minority communities.

Wearing T-shirts made for the occasion, emblazoned with the school’s logo and the word “RISE” on the front, students, faculty and parents marched to the overpass between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The crowd waved handmade signs proclaiming “education not deportation” and “don’t tear families apart,” among others. Led by senior Sergio Salgado, protesters chanted sayings chosen by the government class, including “No justice, no peace” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”

Phoenix was one of many schools, both locally and nationally, to hold demonstrations following the presidential election. According to a Nov. 28 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 80 percent of educators from a national sample of over 10,000, reported students feeling “heightened anxiety and concern” over the effect of the presidential election on themselves and their families.

Uncertainty is a prevailing sentiment on campus — students are uncertain about their futures, while the administration grapples with how to help students cope, particularly while it’s still unclear what Trump will do once in office.

“There are some students that are very afraid of what might happen to their families and whether or not they’re going to continue coming to school,” Hagenburger said.

  • The East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy campus is colorful and covered in inspiring murals such as this one, proclaiming values of “unity,” “motivation,” “power” and “respect.” Pictured November 29, 2016. (Virginia Fay/Peninsula Press)

The threat of deportation hits especially close to home for Phoenix students. Ninety percent of Phoenix’s students are Latino.

“Coming from East Palo Alto, students feel like there’s a stigma attached to them all the time,” Principal Elisha Jackson said. While the administration doesn’t know how many or which of their students might be undocumented, everyone at the school at least knows someone who is undocumented.

“A lot of my family are illegal immigrants … so I was scared and worried about what would happen [after the election],” senior Miriam said. Peninsula Press redacted Miriam’s last name due to the sensitive nature of her family’s immigration status.

Initially unsure about participating in Phoenix’s protest, Miriam said her older sister persuaded her to join. Her sister, who graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School, currently has a social security number and is able to work in the United States through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which Trump has called illegal and unconstitutional. She’s unsure if she should reapply now or wait to see what action he takes.

“That really worried me, so I decided to come [to the protest],” Miriam said. Despite her fears, she helped plan the event with her government class and delivered a speech about hopefulness.

Besides potential impacts on immigration, Phoenix students were disturbed by the overall rhetoric of the campaign and Trump’s policies affecting other minority communities. Senior Aaron Owens is particularly concerned about Trump’s support of “stop-and-frisk,” a policy that would allow police officers to detain any person they believe may be armed and dangerous to check for weapons by patting down their outer clothing.

“It worries me, because I’m a young black male, and I’m kind of aware that police are more likely to stop and frisk me in America than white people. And I feel like when Trump is going to give police the right to do that, I’m going to get constantly harassed. That happened in the past, like we’re just rewinding, we’re just going backwards,” Owens said.

In the face of uncertainty over what Trump will do, the school’s faculty is weighing how best to address student concerns.

“That’s a big question at this point. Where do we go from here?” Assistant Principal Kate Hyle said. With a degree in American history and politics and 10 years of experience as a history teacher, she said this election was unprecedented.

“I had to teach [our students] that this isn’t how our system should work, this isn’t how candidates should act,” she said. Like many educators, Hyle is worried about the lesson young people are learning from this divisive election, and hopes staff will be able to counteract the fears it’s raised for Phoenix students.

Her concern and care for students at this school is evident. Both authoritative and affable, she switches from laughing with a student in one moment to admonishing him to remove earphones the next.

On the day of Hagenburger’s flag-burning lesson, Hyle praised the students for their protest. “What happened on Friday was incredible and inspiring, and it wouldn’t have been as great, and it wouldn’t have gone the way that it went without your leadership,” she said.

Hyle plans to institute a “pulse check” into the weekly agenda of the history and science teachers team to discuss students’ feelings and concerns and strategize faculty response. She said classes like history and government will be the best place for continued discussion. Every student also has a daily 40-minute advisory class focusing on school values, community building and literacy.

Hagenburger, who leads a group of sophomores, said the election has factored heavily into their discussions about belonging to American society, and believes the advisory classes will be a key place to continue to address issues.

Hagenburger described an angst on campus following the election, and that tension is still evident. But there’s also laughing and joking in the hallways — kids being kids.

While the protest was powerful in helping students express themselves, now, “people want to feel like everything’s a little more normal,” Salgado said.

As Inauguration Day approaches, Hyle predicts emotions will spike again. She’s beginning to think about orchestrating an event around Jan. 20 now.

Of their own accord, students have also begun planning an event for Inauguration Day. Salgado, who led chants at the Nov. 18 protest, is planning “something big” with East Palo Alto High and Eastside for people to share their feelings.