by Teddy Crowther ’21 and Ashleigh Stepnowski ’21
Across the entire country, the United States’ presidential election has captivated the attention of people across the nation, including KO’s own campus. On Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, the Associated Press, along with many other media organizations, called the presidential election with Former Vice President Joe Biden narrowly defeating incumbent President Donald Trump.
As of Nov. 11, the projected Electoral College votes predict a Biden win with 290-214 (Alaska, North Carolina, and Georgia have not been called by the Associated Press, with 270 necessary to win).
Facing many pressing issues such as an ongoing global pandemic, rapid political polarization, and other problems that continue to dominate the political arena, this presidential election has assuredly garnered attention from all citizens alike. That sentiment has not been excluded from KO, as countless students, teachers, groups, and other members of the community have been on alert to the ongoing coverage of the election.
Following Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3, the campus has dealt with ongoing tension, stemming from the fact that the election continued for the rest of the week with no clear winner in sight. A contentious election led to many strong opinions from students across campus, and a political atmosphere that has exerted influence over the student body.
“I hope that this is the most contentious election that [students] ever experience,” history teacher Rob Kyff said, who has worked at KO for 43 years, teaching history to generations of students. “It certainly has been for me.”
As the week progressed, several battleground states proved to be the final contest for the two candidates. After flipping the states of Nevada and Pennsylvania, largely in-part to a surge of mail-in ballots and support from both young and progressive voters, Joe Biden was declared the victor of this long and contentious battle. After weeks of preparation, the students finally obtained a conclusion about the state of the presidency.
During the fall, many groups across campus approached the election from various angles, and looked to educate, discuss, and learn about this topic. Clubs such as the KO Democrats and the KO Conservative Club emerged across campus, and teachers learned how to facilitate civil discourse in classrooms.
The KO Democrats, led by seniors Sloan Duvall and Braeden Rose, started the year by hosting a voter registration drive, which encouraged voter turnout and for non-registered citizens to vote. “The idea was that either, if you’re not registered to vote and you’re a student, we’ll be able to register you, or that if you didn’t know your polling address and were a faculty or staff member, you could find that address,” Braeden said.
Sloan worked on the Biden campaign, providing a voice for his candidacy on social media and other platforms. While working on the campaign, she said it has allowed her to reaffirm her own political views, while learning about the long and arduous process of an election.
“It has allowed me to really get a better sense of the views and plans of the campaign,” she said. She also saw how her own political views contrasted with the candidate she supported. “When I first started working on his campaign I thought I agreed with him on everything,” she said. “However, by learning more about his policies through all my work as co-chair of CT Highschoolers for Biden, I have discovered that I am more progressive on a lot of issues.”
The KO Democrats also held two phone bank events, calling voters in Minnesota and other swing states, urging them to vote for Joe Biden and democrats running in local races. The student leaders, along with other members of the club, were satisfied with the fact that they were creating awareness for political events, as well as being able to voice their opinion in a safe setting. “I think it’s important that high schools have clubs that do this kind of stuff,” Braeden said. “I think it helps people vote, and I think it’s important to be cognizant of policies that impact other people and you.”
The KO Conservative Club also garnered attention across campus, facilitating discussion of political issues, while also making it clear that everyone was welcome to attend, regardless of political beliefs. Started by senior Sam Rapp and junior Chase Gibson, the club had held multiple meetings leading up to the election.
“In this election, a lot of people are stressed, and our overall goal was to give people a conservative goal with these things,” Chase said. “It is just to give both sides an area to come and speak freely, and not have many consequences.”
The club stressed the idea of civil discourse, which has become an increasingly prevalent topic in the fall months. People were invited to debate ideas, beliefs, and topics in the club, such as gun control, healthcare, and foreign policy. The club drew attention from both sides of the political spectrum in the multiple meetings it hosted over the course of the months leading up to the election. “I don’t think we’re ever going to change people’s minds, but it’s a place on campus where people with different and opposing viewpoints can come and talk,” Sam said.
Another group that has actively covered the presidential election was the Election 2020 class, taught by history teacher Stacey Savin. The class taught students the basis of democracy, elections, and the inner workings of politics in the United States government. They also covered many of the pressing issues facing this year’s election, and analyzed how each candidate would affect the political landscape, while still dealing with a controversial subject. “I think everybody seems to be very interested in what’s going on, and I haven’t found it to be contentious at all,” Ms. Savin said.
Along with the presidential election, students in the class analyzed congressional elections across the country, and looked at their campaign strategies and potential impact. They also learned about the process of campaigning, and the strategies each party employs in elections. We’ve learned just how elections work in general, how campaigns work, how you even get elected to be the representative of your party, which has been really fun,” junior Megan Murphy said.
Students in the class have shared the sentiment that this election has captivated not only their attention, but the attention of the community around them. They have been eager to learn about the unique and interesting circumstances surrounding this election. “In general, it’s definitely a unique year considering the racial justice implications, and obviously, also with [COVID-19],” senior Ryan Ignatowicz said.
In a tremendously polarizing election, the KO campus has seen controversy and turmoil between students of different political views. In a survey filled out by 64.7% of Upper School students, 52.8% of students identified with the Democratic party, while only 23.1% identified with the Republican party. This same survey saw students favor presidential candidate Joe Biden over incumbent President Donald Trump, with 64.2% of students supporting Biden, and 22.7% of students choosing Trump.
While the atmosphere around the election was most certainly noticed on campus, some students believed that the discussion of politics in classrooms was much more stifled. While classrooms can certainly be an uncertain environment to discuss political issues with fellow classmates, teachers have also made efforts to have these kinds of conversations.
However, teachers had to be cognizant of the fact that the election was a controversial topic, and many strayed away from talking about the candidates or certain issues, instead bringing up the overarching subject. “I definitely think there should be more talk about it,” Chase said. “I’ve had a history class, and that was the only time I talked about it in a class. Other teachers will just ask how you’re feeling about it, but never really go into detail about what’s going on, and never really give you a view on either side.”
In contrast, other students believed that the school failed to remain impartial, and that while students may have different viewpoints, the school should remain neutral. “[The school] is doing pretty well, but I think it’s kind of biased,” freshman Avi Lohr said. “Most of my classes are mainly Democrat, and I’m a Democrat too, so it doesn’t bother me, but the Republicans in my classes, I can tell that they’re uncomfortable.”
Senior Chris Morris agreed saying that it is hard for a school to remain neutral, but KO has room for improvement. “I think we give a pretty liberal view on the election, and in my opinion, there’s never going to be non-bias,” he said. “I feel like there’s some conservative voices that feel like they’re not being heard.”
The polarizing nature of the election has been impactful on the KO community. 39.7% of students on campus identify themselves as politically active. While teachers often would discuss the election in class, they often chose to avoid speaking about specific issues, instead focusing on how students felt about the topic in general. In anticipation of the contentious nature of the election, the school has made an effort to ensure civil discourse among students, including sending out a letter about civil discourse in a recent Wyvern Weekly, and discussing the topic in form meetings with school counselor Chasity Rodriguez.
Mr. Kyff felt that the school was doing well in terms of discourse on campus. “I think the school has clearly gone out of its way to encourage understanding of the other side, of reaching out to students who may feel alienated or stigmatized for political views, and to try to encourage an atmosphere of open dialogue and respect for other people’s opinions”
Other teachers on campus expressed a similar sentiment, including history teacher Peter Jones. “I would guess that the students are generally knowing how people feel so that they are either going to intentionally talk to people that they agree with or not press the issue on campus to avoid discomfort.” He continued, acknowledging that he may not see all interactions on campus. “I’m sure there are disagreements and whether people are respectfully disagreeing or keeping their thoughts away from on campus. […] and I think also there may well be an intent not to be public with disagreements, especially in front of a teacher.”
Meanwhile, students have expressed the fact that social divisions have been formed over political ideals. “I know some of my friends would get really mad at someone if they found out they were a Trump supporter, so I feel like that might make them uncomfortable,” Avi said.
Across campus, the election has impacted students in an unexpected area, with the KO community noticing the impact that politics have on social dynamics. “I have lost friends and gained friends because of their political views,” Sloan said. “It’s a super polarizing election because of the huge difference in morals between the candidates.”
Siegel, a junior who has asked to only be identified by their last name, agreed that the election and its resulting climate has been difficult to navigate. “The political climate at KO, it’s very difficult to talk to people about [politics] because there’s so many factors that go into it,” they said.
Optimism for the future—or a lack thereof—was another point many students varied on. Only 32.8% of students said in the survey that they were optimistic about the political climate for the next four years.
Braeden said he felt somewhat optimistic about the future. “I am definitely optimistic about the people of this country, […] I am optimistic in terms of the people.” he said. He elaborated, saying that this political landscape would see many changes that would turn the tide of partisan issues.
Students that were not as optimistic cited the toxic nature of politics, and the division and polarization, with many expressing concern that it may be irreparable. Among those who were not optimistic, many students who primarily identified themselves as left-leaning expressed concern about the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, as well as a variety of students expressing concern that should the candidate they were not supporting win, they felt the country would decline.
Throughout this lengthened process, and particularly moving towards its end, the election has drawn the attention of the KO community, in classes and outside of them. Students learned to express their political views through civil discourse, while politics became a much more prevalent issue on campus, with clubs, classes, and discussions all rising in prevalence.
The KO community has been decidedly affected by the United States presidential election, as political issues and decisions begin to emerge as students, teachers, and members of the school have been challenged with controversial topics and difficult conversations in a undoubtedly polarizing era of politics.