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The first week of the new school year for Hawaii’s public school students had just ended when the violent unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked by a rally organized by white nationalists exploded onto the national consciousness.
The two days of tumult on Aug. 11 and 12, which led to the death of a 32-year-old woman when a car driven by an alleged neo-Nazi sympathizer rammed into counter-protestors, served as a grim reminder of racial strife and political divisiveness in the country.
In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, local social studies teachers had to figure out how to discuss the incendiary event with students — or whether to discuss it all.
While the “Unite the Right” rally was billed as a protest of the city’s planned removal of a statute of Confederal General Robert E. Lee, white supremacists and neo-Nazis flooded the march with racist vitriol and anti-Semitic chants.
“My initial instinct was to come in and use one of our class periods to talk about it and get student reactions and prompt a discussion,” said Amy Perruso, who teaches 9th grade Modern History of Hawaii at Mililani High School.
“There was such a volatile, charged atmosphere around it, that I didn’t.”
The social studies teacher, however, later decided it was a conversation worth having in her class.
Recently, she showed her students — who are mostly 14 — the first several minutes of a VICE News Tonight documentary, which contains up-close footage of the protestors’ angry torch-lit march in Charlottesville and interviews with white nationalist organizers.
“I only showed the first few minutes to create a common basis for conversation around the role of race,” Perruso said.
She asked her students what they thought the chants meant, and if they thought the protest was about race.
Many of her students did, she said. She used that question to ask if they thought America was a post-racial society and whether they believed Hawaii — with its blend of cultures — was “a racial paradise.”
Many students responded yes, that the diverse population of Hawaii and intermarriage led to less racial tension than they see on the mainland, she said.
“It was a good discussion, but it really highlighted for me the work that I still need to do in terms of helping them grapple with a history of racial and ethnic inequality in Hawaii, and to think critically about what that means for us,” Perruso added.
In a later class, Perruso brought that point home. She had students jot down on large poster board phrases and words that came to mind after studying political cartoons from the 1880s, before Hawaii was annexed into the U.S. The drawings by American cartoonists portrayed members of the Hawaiian monarchy as racial caricatures.
“Disturbing. Unusual. Odd. Racism,” read some of their thoughts.
The events that transpired in Charlottesville — located nearly 5,000 miles away from Hawaii — took place amid a backdrop of bitter political division nationwide. President Donald Trump in the aftermath initially declined to condemn the white supremacists behind the rally, saying there had been an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
For teachers, wading through these polarized times is a challenge.
“I have never felt so uncertain,” said Perruso. “I think the behaviors and the rhetoric are much more difficult to challenge in a way that feels safe for kids.”
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, recently wrote a widely circulated article for Education Week in the aftermath of Charlottesville urging teachers to encourage students to use evidence-backed arguments for all sides of an issue.
“It has become highly cliche to say but nonetheless true that it has been a very long time since the United States has had such a polarized view of political issues of all kinds, and that puts teachers in a very difficult position,” Tucker said in an interview.
Other teachers in Hawaii say while it has been difficult to remain politically objective or neutral in this climate, it’s important to foster an environment of tolerance and understanding in the classroom — and also help students navigate a flurry of information.
“I do see that as civic educators, we have a more significant role in today’s political climate to provide clarity for our students,” said Jason Duncan, who teaches AP Government and Politics at Mililani High School. “We have to be focused and diligent in helping students detect bias and identify viable sources of news consumption.”
Another challenge for teachers is adjusting the conversation suitable to grade level and to the perspective of kids in Hawaii.
The recent events in Charlottesville can seem like they’re a world away to her eighth-graders, says Christina Torres, who teaches English literature through a race and gender lens at Punahou School, a private school in Honolulu.
“When I think about myself at this age, you’re the center of your own universe,” she said. “They live 3,000 miles away from this and racial strife looks really different in Hawaii than it does on the mainland.”
Joseph Cassler, who teaches 10th grade honors U.S. History at Kauai High School, has arranged his curriculum this year so it starts from present day leading back to the Civil War. He’s currently teaching a unit focused on the race riots of the 1990s and U.S. presidents’ responses in turn.
“It was good timing for (sake of class discussion) for a really sad and regressive event to happen (in Virginia),” he said. “This is an event that we will continue to refer back to as we progress through the year.”
Recent national events have caused local educators to reflect on the discussions that can be had with students.
In Duncan’s AP Government & Politics class, for instance, students had a discussion after Charlottesville about whether hate speech should be protected under the First Amendment.
Such conversations aren’t new: Duncan’s class last year discussed First Amendment issues that arose in the controversy surrounding then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he kneeled during the national anthem before a game to protest racial inequity.
After Charlottesville, Duncan’s students offered viewpoints ranging from concerns about the implications of hate speech to worries about the government limiting free speech rights.
“What I saw with the kids is they’re able to have a thoughtful discussion, and disagree on reasonable terms but also universally condemn hatred and violence,” he said.
As President Trump uses Twitter to attacks his critics in often harsh personal terms and many blast the media for purveying “fake news,” social studies teachers say they’ve had to hold back their own personal opinions while stressing civility.
Cassler, of Kauai High, said he has grappled with how to approach the recent protests through a neutral lens. But there is one subject on which he is firm: condemning white supremacy. “I didn’t have any issue saying that to my students,” he said.
Cassler’s students, who are a mix of Caucasians, Filipinos, Japanese, Micronesians and mixed-race students, may also feel removed from racial tensions seen in the rest of the country.
“A lot of these students have never been to the mainland or had an opportunity to see other cultures other than what we have here,” he said.
Still, they’ve followed the elections. While he said most leaned liberal and supported President Obama when he was in office, he has had “some pretty conservative students” based on their religious upbringing.
“I’m six months in (to the current administration), and my kids are pretty interested in Trump, but for the opposite reasons,” he said. “Many students are definitely expressing discomfort with the current presidency.”
“As an educator, I try and keep my personal viewpoints to myself as much as I can,” Cassler added. “I do play the devil’s advocate. I think it’s important (my students) see that there are other ideas out there they not be paying attention to.”
The current political climate has allowed teachers to drill down on foundational concepts involving the U.S. Constitution, the separation of powers and branches of government.
But Perusso acknowledges that remaining neutral right now isn’t easy.
“I have a hard time right now being fair, and I have never felt that way before,” Perruso said. “I have always felt, let’s just talk about it, it’s just politics. Everything feels more intensified, and the stakes feel much higher.”
Mililani High, located in central Oahu, has a diverse student population that includes a large percentage of military families.
Duncan, the AP Government teacher, said his class last year contained “a few staunch conservatives and several liberal-minded students.”
“Students of military personnel I had last year were very mixed,” he said. “One of my largest Hillary Clinton supporters was from a military family and one of my largest Trump supporters was a local kid.”
“I’ve always tried to let most conversations be open and free-flowing but don’t accept responses that perpetuate racism, bigotry, sexism and stereotypes,” he said. “I tell my students that even if they don’t see it in the current political climate, that I expect from them a high level of civility and respect for differences of opinions.”