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Worthington classrooms respond to student worries about America’s future

Students leave Worthington MIddle School on Sept. 6 following the first day of classes. (Tim Middagh/Daily Globee)

WORTHINGTON — Teachers working in the English Learners (EL) classrooms in District 518 faced a barrage of questions and concerns from their students on Wednesday, hours after Donald Trump was declared the victor in the U.S. presidential election.

Trump, who has repeatedly threatened to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, as well as deport an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants back to their home country, has some students concerned — even fearful — about their future.

Karen Balsley-Omot is a sixth-grade EL teacher at Worthington Middle School. On Wednesday, she spent time in each of her classes talking about the outcome of the presidential race.

“I didn’t even have to ask about the election and they said they were feeling terrible and stressed out,” she said after school on Wednesday.

Among the questions her students asked were: “Why does Trump hate us?”, “How will this affect my family?”, “What happens now?”, “Is the wall going to keep me from visiting family?”

“There were a lot of fears with just not knowing,” Balsley-Omot said. “They just don’t understand.”

In one of her classes Wednesday, Balsley-Omot was asked if a Muslim friend of one of her students was going to be able to come to school again.

“It’s stressful because it affects them directly,” she said.

Meanwhile, in an EL class at the high school, Cheryl Avenel-Navara was fielding the same sorts of questions from ninth through 12th graders. She was serving as a substitute teacher for the day, and the lesson plan was a continuation of Tuesday’s discussion on the Electoral College and how presidents win based on the number of electoral votes they receive — not the popular vote.

When she opened the class up for discussion, her classrooms of Hispanic, Asian and African students opened up as well — about their own fears and the fear of what will happen to their families.

Questions ranged from the differences between a green card and permanent residency, legal versus undocumented or illegal and what’s going to happen when Trump takes office in January.

“They’re scared, they’re worried,” Avenel-Navara said. “I tried to tell them that he’s one person. Not all of the Republicans agree with him.”

The topic of deportation raised fear in some students, who wanted to know if someone would come to their house, to the school, or to businesses and arrest them.

“It’s just the uncertainty that they’ve got,” Avenel-Navara said.

Back at Worthington Middle School, Balsley-Omot said her goal Wednesday was to remind her students they are safe and OK.

“We talked about making laws and politics and the beauty of our country and there being checks and balances,” she said. “Trump can’t just make everybody leave.”

With middle schoolers, Balsley-Omot said they didn’t differentiate between the outcome of the election and how soon their family may be impacted.

“They see this as ‘My future is right now — this is affecting me right now — I’m not going to see my parents when I get home (because they will be deported today),’” she said. “I try to get them to see the bigger picture.

“I have a lot of kids who have faith,” she added. “They bring up that God’s still the boss. It’s how they deal with it.”

Teaching students Wednesday had its challenges because the kids were distracted by the election results. Balsley-Omot said she saw the stress her students were under and realized they aren’t going to learn if they don’t feel safe.

Balsey-Omot noted that there were some bullying incidents in the middle school in which hurtful comments were made to some Latino students by other kids, primarily focused on Trump’s message on deportation.

“The appropriate action was taken — it wasn’t left undone,” she said. “We have 33 percent Caucasian (students) in the school and the rest are immigrants, or their parents were immigrants or refugees. It’s a pretty big thing when someone who now represents the country says something negative. You do take it personal.”

Laurie Knudson, a counselor at Worthington’s Prairie Elementary, said she saw students for a variety of reasons Wednesday, but none were related to the presidential election. In the middle and high schools, counselors Carrie Adams and Lakeyta Swinea said they also didn’t experience any issues with students related to the outcome of the election.

WHS Principal Joshua Noble did send a proactive message to students Wednesday through Schoology, the school’s communications platform.

“We haven’t had anything really boil over at all,” Noble said, adding that a student representative on the school board alerted him to some comments overheard correlating the outcome of the election to race.

“We were just trying to get in front of it,” Noble said of the email, which he shared with the Daily Globe late Wednesday afternoon. It reads:

“The 2016 election has caused a considerable amount of divisiveness throughout the country, within our community, and potentially right here in our high school. I have been hearing about interactions between our students and some inappropriate social media posts. The division that has occurred or increased throughout (our) country during the campaign has been sad to watch. We need to have the character to rise above this negativity. We are one of the most diverse high schools in the state of Minnesota and we need to be an example for others. We cannot allow ourselves to become reactionary and disrespectful towards each other. We cannot allow ourselves to become individuals who judge each other based on race or religion. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the divisive negativity. I challenge all of us to pause, reflect and give ourselves time to think before we speak/post.
“If you are seeing or hearing about specific racial disrespect, or other forms of bullying, please let Mr. Hastings or I know right away. Thanks, Joshua Noble”

Noble said he anticipates there may be more issues in the days ahead, but they are encouraging students to respect each other.

 
Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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