The contentious 2016 presidential race has led schools in one Long Island district to alter their mock election plans.
Administrators in the Middle Country Central School District said elementary students would be debating and voting on topics such as their favorite colors, lunches and books this year, a break with tradition for some schools. Older students at the district’s middle and high schools, however, will discuss the election using the real candidates.
At North Coleman Road Elementary in Centereach, the school’s 350 students will vote either for Coke or Pepsi — with a third-party candidate of water.
Teachers didn’t want to cancel the scheduled mock election, but needed a less heated topic such as soda, principal Gretchen Rodney said.
“We felt like there were still some important lessons that the students needed to have,” she said.
District superintendent Roberta Gerold said debating a favorite book, for example, allows elementary school students to learn the basics of debating without the emotion and name-calling that she said has been a hallmark of this election cycle.
“They parrot what they hear outside,” she said of the elementary school students. “I don’t want our kids to feel uncomfortable debating issues.”
But the move to a candidate-less event has been controversial and even brought what Gerold called, “hate mail.”
The anonymous hate mail began to arrive this week after a news report on the change at Jericho Elementary School in Centereach, where students will vote on their favorite school lunches instead of presidential candidates, Gerold said. She said she believes the hate mail came from people who live outside the district, although most of it is anonymous. One message was signed by a man who said he was from Oregon, and threatened to sue for “promoting voter fraud.”
Most of the negative messages were sent directly to the school principal, Gerold said, adding that they were critical, but not threatening in nature.
She said officials are standing by their decisions and ignoring the messages. Police were not consulted.
Many of the district’s teachers and administrators believed the issues raised this year and the language that both the candidates and their supporters are using aren’t appropriate for younger students, Gerold said.
“The older kids know what a respectful campaign ought to be like. The younger kids, they’re just learning it,” she said. “One of the things our principals and teachers do is to teach the value of the electoral process, and inherent in that is respectful discourse.”
At least 15 other schools across Long Island still are planning to hold mock debates and elections between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, administrators said.