How South Los Angeles Educators Are Helping Students Cope with Post-Election Fears

By Hawken Miller

Santee Education Complex in South Los Angeles. (Photo: Sabrina Yam)

Near the end of the school day on a mid-November afternoon, English teacher Claudia Cataldo sat at her desk at Santee Education Complex in South Los Angeles, correcting students’ poetry assignments. Behind her was a stack of papers — an impromptu assignment that came on the heels of the election that named Donald Trump president-elect.

The day after the election, Cataldo threw her standard lesson plans out the window and opened class time for students to express themselves. She estimated about 95 percent of her class, many of who come from Latino immigrant families or are undocumented themselves, felt personally attacked by Trump’s comments surrounding minority groups, and expressed concerns about his proposal to step up deportations.

“They were all really furious,” Cataldo said. “I have their written feedback. I told them to write it down…I said, ‘Get it out. Let it out.’ ”

At a time when many South LA students are feeling angst over what will happen to them and their families during Trump’s presidency, educators are holding conversations in the classroom to empower them to reflect on those feelings. And some school administrations have made sure teachers are prepared to confront tough questions.

Xavier Lovo, a counselor at Animo Jackie Robinson High School, said a staff meeting took place the morning after the election “to prepare for consoling and speaking to our students as best as possible.”

Even before the meeting, he had to confront a student who was emotionally affected by the result of the election.

“I had one student first thing in the morning who was crying outside my door,” Lovo said. “I brought him into my office and after he stopped tearing up he asked me, ‘What’s going to happen to my mom, to my dad? Are they going to get deported?’”

In the same week that Lovo encountered the distressed student, media outlets reported that a substitute physical education teacher at Bret Harte Preparatory Middle School was caught telling students their parents would be deported, exacerbating fears that many undocumented students already had.

Four days after that incident, the Los Angeles Unified School District board passed a resolution to support and protect undocumented students and make campuses a safe zone. It also vowed to protect the data and identities of students, families or staff who may be threatened by future immigration policies or discrimination.

This week, the District began a hotline for students with questions and concerns about the potential impact on them and their families.

“All of our teachers, all of our administration, is working together to send a message to the kids,” Lovo said. “You can’t promise them safety, you can’t promise them anything, but you can let them know you will do your best to help protect them.”

For some students, written expression and support from teachers and administrators didn’t feel like enough. On Nov. 10, thousands of students, many from South LA high schools, walked out to protest against Trump’s election.

A student of Cataldo’s at Santee, who preferred to remain anonymous, chose to exercise her first amendment right to assemble.

“We have a voice,” the young woman said. “We have to speak up about it too.”

“In my opinion he is not the right president for us… he abuses women, he calls Mexican aliens. That is not right,” said another unidentified student from Augustus Hawkins High School.

While teachers and counselors accompanied students to provide guidance during the walkout, the event was not approved by the district.

Shortly after multiple protests, Supt. Michelle King issued a statement acknowledging students’ concerns and need for expression. She also noted schools were holding assemblies, classroom dialogues and restorative justice programs “to provide a secure forum” for students.

However, King urged students to hold demonstrations outside of school hours, noting that “it is critical that students not allow their sentiments to derail their education or for their actions to place them in danger.”

In Lovo’s opinion, it is up to students to determine their own political views and the actions they take for or against them.

“[Political views are] not pushed upon any student,” Lovo said. “The students live their own reality and they can decide what their belief is.”

This story has been updated to reflect LAUSD’s hotline number.