Watching the Oct. 9 debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a required assignment for Norma Johnson’s 10th-grade American studies students at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. But when a 2005 tape surfaced in which Trump made vulgar and sexually predatory comments about women, Johnson made the assignment optional.
She explained to her students that the debate “is potentially going to be an inappropriate discussion” in which “explosive sexual topics” are likely to be brought up.
And she had one more piece of advice for her students: “If you’re going to watch the debate, do it with your parents,” she said.
Local Jewish day school educators say that it is up to parents — not schools — to talk to children about the moral and ethical issues surrounding Trump’s characterization of women. Trump’s highly divisive and often crude rhetoric has forced them to walk the fine line between condemning individual statements by Trump without making an endorsement in the presidential race.
“Kids are confused, I think, because they expect the adults in the conversation to have real things to say based on facts and evidence,” Johnson said. “How do we teach kids to be proud of our democracy when it’s presented to them like a reality TV show?”
When the normally objective-while-teaching Johnson heard a couple of her students joking about the now-infamous tape, she reprimanded them and explained that Trump’s comments illustrated not “locker-room talk” but the legal definition of sexual assault.
Johnson has taught for 30 years, and said the 2016 election has been one of the hardest because she feels Trump is not a legitimate candidate. She said there have been times both this academic year and last when she has had to tell students not to repeat Trump’s derogatory nicknames for other candidates, such as “Crooked Hillary” for Clinton or “Lyin’ Ted” for Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Despite what has been a toxic election season for young minds, she still thinks there are lessons that can be taught from Election 2016.
“They have to understand when they’re watching a campaign ad what it’s really saying. To look for facts, to look for distortions, to look for all the techniques of how the producers of that video elicit certain responses,” she said.
And ask your parents.
“Go home and challenge your parents and ask those critical questions that you need to push people on,” she said.
Younger students should watch debates at the discretion of their parents, said Arielle Derby, elementary school director at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital. She said her teachers will not raise the issues of sexism and violence revealed in the tape, but instead try to stay focused on political issues.
Like other educators interviewed for this story, Derby declined to talk about Trump, and instead talked about education philosophy.
“One of the values that we try to communicate is civil discourse and respect,” she said. “There’s always going to be things that we wish students weren’t hearing.”
But Janet Collier, instructional leader for grades 2-6 at JPDS, said some of her older students did watch the Oct. 9 debate and took note of the first question that was asked by an audience member, who asked whether the candidates were “modeling appropriate behavior” for America’s children.
“They did us proud by not using any invectives themselves,” Collier said. “And one fifth-grader said she wished the response to the first question had been that no presidential candidate should say something that a kindergartner shouldn’t hear.”
Collier said the school tries to foster respectful discussion in its classrooms about the election so that all students feel they have a voice.
“They’re very attuned to the idea they have different perspectives, and listening to them is as important as listening to the candidates,” she said.
Gesher Jewish Day School, the Torah School of Greater Washington and the Yeshiva of Greater Washington did not respond to calls for this article.
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school for Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, said as a man, he was offended personally by Trump’s lewd comments. But turning that into a teaching moment at school would mean taking a political position on the election.
He said the school’s middle and high school students participate in a sexual assault education program run by the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse to gain awareness of the issue before departing for college, but that is “different than coming out and denouncing a candidate.”
But in December, Malkus wrote critically on his blog of Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. He compared it to the behavior of Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
“The school is not a political organization, and I steer clear of supporting or opposing political candidates and taking positions in my official capacity with regard to political proposals,” he wrote at the time. “At the same time, when core moral values are being violated to the detriment of our entire nation, I feel an imperative to take a stand. Discriminating against all Muslims out of fear and ignorance will ultimately lead to bigotry, hatred and potential violence to other groups.”
In an interview with Washington Jewish Week last week, Malkus said his school prides itself on being pluralistic and honoring differences of opinion in the classroom, provided that the educators do not share their personal views of candidates they support.
“We want to prepare the students and educate them to be active and engaged citizens in society, and we want to engage them in civic education so that when they are old enough to vote they can exercise that,” he said.
While educators have varied in their approach to tackling Trump, they say they are adhering to the “ask your parents first” approach when dealing with Trump’s treatment of women.
That’s a role that Johnson is happy to play with her 15-year-old son.
“My son considers himself an athlete and said, ‘Mom, that’s not how people talk in locker rooms,’” she said. “Kids are trying to make sense of this. I want him to feel strong about his opinion. I want him to be a thinking man and I don’t want him to be a parrot of somebody else.”