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Seattle kids ask their teachers, 'Why is Trump so mean?'

Flickr Photo/WarzauWynn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A little girl went home in tears recently: She had been called "a Trump" at her school in Seattle.

A first-grade boy, the son of a KUOW employee, asked his mother if his Muslim classmates would have to move away if Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, were elected.

And teachers across the district are grappling with how to handle the hot-button issues of race, gender and religion that have become the focus of this year’s presidential election. 

Samantha Bonoff teaches middle school social studies at Catharine Blaine K-8 School in Magnolia. Her eighth-graders are learning about the U.S. political system, and on a recent afternoon, they theorized about how the elections would differ if kids their age could vote.

In a presidential election year, Bonoff's civics curriculum used to have a familiar format. Her class would examine the candidates’ platforms, and debate the relative merits of each plan.

Then there’s this year. "This election is just a different scenario," Bonoff said. "So a lot of the stock election stuff doesn’t fit." Bonoff said her students want to talk about Hillary Clinton’s email server, and why it was problematic. And they have a lot of questions about Donald Trump – and things he’s said.

Some questions are easy – like what are the qualifications to run for president?

When a charged issue comes up, she’ll start by discussing the Constitution, and previous policy the U.S. has followed.

Then she’ll get personal: “How does this make you feel? What do you think they meant by this?”

Most of the kids at Blaine are white, and Magnolia has one of the rare clusters of Republican voters in this predominantly Democratic city.

Over at Lowell Elementary on Capitol Hill, most of the students are kids of color – many from immigrant families. Their concerns about the election are different, said fifth-grade teacher Laura Schulz.

"A lot of the kids ask, 'Why would Donald Trump be saying these hurtful things?'" Schultz said.

Like his remarks about a Latina beauty pageant winner, Schulz said. "Some of my Latino students will say, 'I was offended when I heard Donald Trump say this about that woman, and call her a housekeeper.'"

Last school year, Schulz had 10 Muslim students. She said they were anxious that they might be deported after the election.

"I don’t want to tell kids, 'Oh, no, nothing will happen,’ because that’s not really the truth of the matter," Schulz said. "But we have lots of really important discussions about how democracy works, and how difficult something like deportation would be on a mass level in the United States, and assuring kids of the system of the branches of government, and the checks and balances."

Discussions about this fall's election transcend social studies and homeroom classes.

At Ballard High School, science teacher Noam Gundle starts the week asking students about their weekends. Gundle said the election often comes up, especially after a presidential debate. 

Gundle said he’s careful to keep his opinions to himself and to serve as moderator. But not this week, after the Access Hollywood tape – and after Trump defended his so-called “locker room talk” during the debate.

"I felt like I needed to say something, because I’m a mentor to these students,” Gundle said. “I prefaced my remarks by saying, 'Separate from his political beliefs, I think those actions are not OK.'

“I don’t think I’m standing outside of my role as a mentor when I tell students that it’s not OK to support rape culture. I think that’s an opinion that students need to hear," Gundle said.

Back at Lowell, Schulz said class discussions about the election have elicited students’ stories about the discrimination and harassment they already experience as Muslims. She's been heartened to see how empathetic their non-Muslim classmates have been.

"I feel privileged to work in a school that has such diversity. You hear a lot in the news about how a lot of the rhetoric in politics is causing bullying to rise, and things like that in school,” Schultz said. “But at this school, it’s almost the opposite, where kids are coming together and aligning and supporting each other.”

And at Blaine in Magnolia, Bonoff said she understands the importance of teachers remaining neutral. But she said there must be exceptions.

"I have to call some things out as wrong," Bonoff said. "We just have to call out racism, and bigotry, and misogyny when we see it. It's OK if they don’t necessarily agree with what I’m saying. But I have to do that, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Year started with KUOW: 2008