Teachers Are Finding the Presidential Debate Topics Tough to Explain

PHOTO: Hillary Clinton speaks as Donald Trump looks on during the town hall debate at Washington University, Oct. 9, 2016, in St Louis.PlayWin McNamee/Getty Images
WATCH Most Memorable Lines of the 3rd Presidential Debate

Elections are commonly used by teachers to show students examples of democracy in action. But with the sensitive and often controversial topics raised in this presidential cycle, some teachers are finding the debates difficult to discuss.

Interested in 2020 Elections?

Add 2020 Elections as an interest to stay up to date on the latest 2020 Elections news, video, and analysis from ABC News.
Add Interest

Gina Daniels, a high school social studies teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, told ABC News that some of her students are "afraid to even address the topic" of the election.

A particularly difficult moment came after the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The GOP nominee defended his vulgar language describing how he kissed and approached women, which some interpreted as descriptions of sexual assault, in a leaked recording from 2005.

"I had to explain to a class of students why sexual assault is not OK and not a joke and not an idle threat. My students — the girls — looked on in horror as the boys tried to justify locker room talk," Daniels said.

She believes Trump's example is leading their thinking. "Why did they do that? It's because they've seen the example of Donald Trump doing just that and they think its OK to try and justify it," Daniels said. "And it's not."

The rhetoric of the election is extending beyond high school classrooms.

Maureen Costello, the director of the Teaching Tolerance Project, which is associated with the anti-discrimination watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said that project team members have heard from teachers about how the election is having a negative impact on students of all ages.

"We heard of children from kindergarten through high school breaking down into tears in class," she told ABC News. "We heard of very young children worrying that while they're at school, a wall will be built that will keep them from their families. We heard about Muslim middle and high school students who are called 'terrorist' and 'ISIS' as they pass through the school hallways or who have to sit through class discussions where a classmate says that all Muslims should be killed."

Hillary Clinton cited the "Trump effect" — a term coined by the SPLC after a survey of teachers earlier this year — during the first debate, at Hofstra University in New York, saying that "children are listening" and that "bullying is up" in schools.

PHOTO: A still from a campaign ad for Hillary Clinton entitled Role Models is seen here. Hillary Clinton/YouTube
A still from a campaign ad for Hillary Clinton entitled "Role Models" is seen here.

Costello said that the effects of campaign rhetoric, particularly on younger students, is a concern. "It's important to remember that these are impressionable children," she said. "They don't have the intellectual background or life experience to be able to critically question these statements."

The tension is more present among members of groups that Trump has targeted in speeches or proposed policies.

"Students who belong to some of the groups that have been specifically identified as sources of problems for the country — undocumented immigrants, particularly Mexicans, and Muslims, for instance — are experiencing a lot of anxiety," Costello said. "They're bringing that anxiety to school and talking about it with teachers."

"Some of the concerns are very real. Will they be separated from their families because of deportation? Will Muslims be treated as enemy aliens? Some of them are damaging to their psyches. Why isn't this country welcoming them? Why do people hate them?" she said.

Daniels said the rhetoric is having "a trickle down effect from the national level."

A Democrat, she tries to stay neutral in the classroom but has had to adapt her conversations.

"I try to remain as neutral as possible. It just becomes really difficult because you can't remain neutral about sexual assault or bullying of immigrants," Daniels said.