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Political conflicts are hurting California teens’ high school experience, study finds

California is often cited as a stronghold of left-wing politics, with an electorate that voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a nearly 2-1 ratio in 2020.

But a study of the state’s high schools shows that California campuses are just as likely to experience political conflict as those in other, more polarized states.

“The surprise here is not that California is any different, it’s that our public schools are experiencing similar levels of political attack and conflict to what we’ve seen across the country,” said John Rogers, study co-author and UCLA principal. Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

The study, conducted by researchers at UCLA and UC Riverside, surveyed 150 directors of California high schools in “blue” congressional districts, where Donald Trump received less than 45% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election, and “purple” districts, where Trump received 45% to 54.9% of the votes

Trump received more than 55% of the vote in just two California congressional districts, which were not included in the study.

The study was conducted as part of a national survey of high school principals.

The results showed that California campuses were not immune to political conflict; School leaders in California’s purple communities were much more likely than leaders in blue districts to report that “community conflict” had arisen over issues affecting LGBTQ students and teachings about race and racism.

“About two-thirds of the schools in the state are experiencing some level of political conflict, mirroring what we have seen in other states,” Rogers said in a news release. “The level of conflict affecting schools would seem to reflect the intense and pervasive nature of what is happening at the national level.”

According to the report, incidents of discrimination against LGBTQ, Black and Latino students have increased.

“More than three-quarters (78%) of California principals reported that their students had made hostile or demeaning comments to LGBTQ classmates,” the report stated.

Two-thirds of the principals reported that the racist comments had been directed at Black students, and 50% of the principals said that the racist comments had been directed at Latino students.

“That African-American students receive hostile and demeaning comments more often than any other student group is particularly surprising given that African-Americans make up only five percent of all students enrolled in California public schools,” the report says.

“Moving forward,” Rogers said, “we need to redouble our commitment to ensure that all California students feel safe and respected in our public schools.”

In the purple districts, 64% of principals reported that “the level of intolerance” among students had increased. No director of the purple districts said that level had decreased.

Additionally, more than 70% of principals reported that students had made “degrading or hateful” comments to students on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Where California schools veered from national trends was in their advocacy for underserved communities, according to the report.

“Nationally, school and district leaders in purple communities were 22% less likely than those in blue communities to speak out about the importance of LGBTQ student rights,” the report says.

In California, however, school leaders from purple districts were just as likely to speak as leaders from blue districts.