Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
One in a series of occasional articles examining how President Trump’s ascendance and early moves have altered expectations and reality. This story is the first of three gauging those effects in one Pennsylvania county.
YORK, Pa.—Are you OK? Where are you?
Barbara Estep kept texting her daughter, Nylaya Way, who was not responding. Donald Trump had stunned the nation by winning the presidency the night before, and now frightening things were happening at Nylaya’s vocational high school, York County School of Technology.
Racial tensions had been building in the school’s corridors, cafeteria, and parking lot throughout the historically divisive campaign. Then, hours after Trump claimed victory in the election, they boiled over as a group of white students held aloft Trump campaign signs and chanted in a hallway, “White power!’’
A brief video clip of the incident shot across the social media feeds of York Tech students and their parents.
“I just thought it was going to be this big race riot,” Barbara Estep said. “The country-fed boys, they’re hunters. I’m sorry, that’s what I thought. These city kids, they have guns. I thought it was going to be a big shootout.”
Finally, a text came from Nylaya: I’m OK. Stop worrying.
But even as the threat of violence seemed to ease, Estep decided to keep her daughter out of school the next day. Many other parents made the same call.
“When I called the school and I said, ‘I’m not going to send her,’ ” Estep recalls, “the person in the attendance office said, ‘I don’t blame you.’ ”
Trump’s election a year ago profoundly altered the United States in ways that continue to reverberate, but perhaps most visibly and disturbingly in how we talk to one another, especially about the hardest things, like the nation’s racial divide. The volume is up; the edge is sharp. Old grievances feel new, and civility is being sorely tested.
Certainly, that’s how it went down in York County along the southern border of Pennsylvania. York went big for Trump in the election, with a 63 to 33 percent margin over Hillary Clinton that helped the billionaire reality TV star capture the state and vault into the White House. Yet, the morning after, Trump’s win seemed less like a victory for democracy — the kind celebrated in high school civics classes — than a trigger for tensions felt across York County and the rest of America.
York Tech parents found themselves frantically trying to contact their kids as the school seethed with racial hostility.
A year later, they haven’t stopped worrying.
With its small-city core of York, surrounded by fields and hills that rise from the broad Susquehanna River, the county is politically split between urban and rural; between black or brown and white; between older, settled families and newer immigrants; between Democrats and Republicans.
In other words, America.
It’s the kind of place where a simple Trump sign or cardboard cutout is seen by some as a show of pride in working-class values, but by others as a racist affront. Since Trump’s election, York residents have been un-friending one another on Facebook, avoiding one another at grocery store checkout lines, and leaving churches whose pews now feel uncomfortable.
Over the course of dozens of interviews here in recent weeks, it was not uncommon for lifelong residents to tear up when speaking about their community and the once-close ties that are now growing frayed.
The experience at York Tech since Trump’s election — as parents, elected leaders, and school administrators grappled with the fallout from racial outbursts at the school — reflects the uneasiness with which these forces continue to percolate, often just below the surface.
Outwardly, life in York County and its vocational school seems to have returned to something like normal as students settle into a new school year and Trump’s first year winds down. But the class resentments, racism, and xenophobia that became flashpoints during the election have hardened, not healed.
Students of all kinds and backgrounds converge on the York County School of Technology each weekday morning. Some spend an hour on the bus to get to the magnet campus, which, nestled along a commercial strip in a southern exurb, could easily be mistaken for a suburban office park.
For families in this middle-class county, the school’s instruction in everything from nursing and cosmetics to welding and automotive technology is seen as a step toward a solid job, with some graduates — like those training as precision machinists — able to step right into a $70,000 annual salary.
Some arriving students pause at the local gas station, dressed in the school uniform of color-coded T-shirts that correspond to the trade they are learning. They sip coffee outside the school like it’s a work site.
Students have coded language to describe who’s who. “City kids” come from a fading downtown that has the grit and dreams of a city larger than its population of 40,000, with down-and-out streets and boarded up rowhouses but also a farmer’s market and a nascent arts scene. The “country kids” come from the surrounding rural county of another 400,000, covered with farms and apple orchards passed down through the generations.
It’s a place that celebrates its history (York, where the Continental Congress met for some months during the Revolutionary War, claims to be the nation’s first capital) and, as the birthplace of the Peppermint Pattie, its sweet tooth. It’s a working-class area, home to York Barbell and the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame and a massive Harley-Davidson motorcycle factory.
While residents of the rural parts of the county have voted for Republican presidential candidates in every election since 1964, they came out in bigger numbers for Trump than for any other presidential candidate in modern history. City residents voted for Clinton, also in large numbers — though not large enough for her to win.
Trump supporters reveled in his victory.
“I was numb,” said Matt Jansen, whose outspoken support of Trump caused him to lose friends who used to accompany him to Grateful Dead concerts. But that backing won him a spot at the Republican National Convention as a Trump delegate. “I was so happy we had a candidate who was so different. To have a candidate say things like sons of bitches and [expletive] from the podium? You have to go back 100 years to find guys like this.”
“People around York are cunning,” he added. “They may be country people, but they’re wise. And they recognized Donald Trump as being smart as a whip — and they are proud to say they voted for him.”
But not everyone did.
Tonya Thompson-Morgan has found herself blocking some of her old high school classmates and other Facebook friends. She struggles with the competing emotions of telling her 12-year-old daughter why it’s wrong to say she “hates” Trump, but also why it’s wrong for Trump to call the NFL players she respects “sons of bitches.” When she walked around the York Fair this summer and saw people handing out signs that read “Trump is still my president,” she felt turned away from the only community she’s ever known.
“When can we heal? When is there a healing process?” she says, taking a long pause to compose herself and wipe away tears.
“Unless I turn off the lights, go in my bedroom, shut the door, and turn off the TV, there is no way to escape,” Thompson-Morgan says. “I feel like we eat, sleep, and breathe Trump. Trump for breakfast, Trump for lunch, Trump for dinner, and Trump as a midnight snack.”
Even the local doughnut shop became a point of conflict, a proxy battleground for the city’s soul.
Charles Burnside, the owner of Maple Donuts, put Trump photos on his delivery trucks, created a Trump doughnut (cherry and vanilla, just like the president likes his ice cream), and displayed a “Make America Great Again” flag out front.
If you’re a Trump supporter, you go to Maple Donuts.
If you’re not, you boycott — or, as a solo protester did for a few weeks this summer, walk outside for hours with anti-Trump signs.
Much of the county can practice avoidance, burying their differences behind their routines of work, shopping, family life. Not so the kids streaming along the linoleum-lined hallways of York Tech, a crossroads of cultures where the student body is 62 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, and about 11 percent multiracial.
Pickup trucks driven by country kids, some with Confederate flags and Trump stickers, surge into one corner of the parking lot each day. The cars driven by city kids fill another.
Just after Trump’s election, the office of Mayor Kim Bracey, who in 2010 became the city’s first black mayor, was flooded with phone calls from parents worried about the potential for conflict at York Tech.
As Bracey prepared to leave for the school that Thursday, the city’s police chief made an unusual request: Don’t go alone. Go with armed city police officers.
“I’ve had escorts before, but never to a school,” Bracey said. “It was eerie. You just didn’t think of that in York. It woke us up. It woke us up to the reality that we have a new president. Things are going to be different.”
During the openly hostile general election campaign between Trump and Clinton, administrators were wary but kept the school focused on its core mission, training students for careers. Politics was not part of the academic equation. There were no mock elections. No curriculum geared toward current events.
But outside their classrooms, students took the debate into their own hands.
In the cafeteria, Trump supporters sat apart from Trump haters. Hispanic students said they were told they would soon have to go back to Mexico, while black students said they were called slaves or heard monkey sounds as they passed in the hallways.
Any white student who supported Trump was almost immediately tagged a racist.
School officials recognized the dangers. As if they were wearing gang colors, students who wore Trump pins on their backpacks were told by school administrators to remove them. Same, too, for those with Black Lives Matter pins.
“Our school was having, like, a civil war,” said Nylaya, a 16-year-old junior. “Everyone was starting to separate themselves. Everything was like, ‘They’re not my people. Don’t come near me.’ ”
“It was like hatred,” she added. “Literal hatred through our school.”
A little bit before 8 a.m. on the day after the election, Nylaya arrived in one of the 34 buses that pulled up to the front of the school, spilling nearly 1,500 students into the building. As two of those students entered the lobby, walking past a security office, they turned a corner and held aloft one of Trump’s campaign signs.
“White power!” a third student chanted. “White power!”
A faculty member nearby confiscated the signs. The brief moment would have gone largely unnoticed had it not been for a student nearby who had her phone on, recording the moment as it transpired.
A 3-second video was posted online, shaking the community.
“York tech is outta hand,” Victorria Markle, a freshman, wrote on Facebook that morning.
“I’m not scared of Donald Trump,” another student, Amy Marie Yonish, wrote on her page. “I’m scared of the obvious influences he has on teenagers.”
School officials visited classrooms. They sent a phone message to parents, telling them they were aware of the incidents and were investigating anything reported to them. But administrators also had their doubts about some of the claims.
“We investigated numerous things that never happened,” said David Thomas, the school’s director. “Kids forget we have video cameras. There was a lot of getting on the bandwagon to get on the news.”
“It got kids on TV,” he added later. “Kids want to be on TV.”
On the second day after the election, minority students mobilized. Some spoke to local journalists, recounting the racist and sexist comments they said they heard in the halls. Students also planned a protest they called a “black out,” one they hoped would be a powerful counter expression to the “white power” chant.
De’Auntae Corry — a senior who had worn a Black Lives Matter pin on his backpack for about two years until administrators told him to remove it — helped organize the protest, which took place the Friday after the election.
They dispensed with the school dress code, and wore all black. Some girls painted their lips black or put their hair in Bantu knots.
“We come here to get educated, and we get discriminated against — that’s not OK!” one student shouted during the gathering, which several other students captured on video and shared on Facebook.
Scott Rogers, the school’s assistant director, spoke to the gathering, his voice raised and cracking with emotion.
“We are so concerned about this,” he said, before pleading for the students to return to their classrooms. “This is not what York Tech stands for! You know we are a Spartan Nation. And we sincerely believe in all of you.”
“This community needs this — for us to come together.”
That morning, Sue Lesley drove to the school from her home in the county, concerned about what was going on in the school her son, Dalton, was proud to attend. She said she stewed with anger as she watched black students head inside to protest.
“I was infuriated,” she said. “They’re enabling the minority to become the majority, is my thought on this. And the more they keep enabling these kids and these parents to talk and raise holy hell over everything, they’re just going to keep enabling them to behave badly.”
“You notice the white parents didn’t throw a fit, because we have higher standards,” she added. “I’m sorry but I think the African-American community is looking – they were looking — at Obama to support them. And he was gone.”
Dalton is a fourth-generation farmer who spends his afternoons tending to his pigs or working on the family farm. He hunts and fishes and went for nearly six years without owning a pair of sneakers, favoring a sturdy set of work boots instead.
He lives in a town whose name reflects the way many in his community feel under President Trump: New Freedom. His garage, where he rebuilt a pickup truck, is filled with pictures of tractors. There’s also a Trump flag, a Confederate flag, and a sign that says: “American by birth, rebel by choice.”
The morning of the black out protest, Dalton went to a mostly empty classroom and joined in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, as students do each day. But as he spoke, he said, he grew frustrated. His list of grievances was long:
He is penalized if he doesn’t wear his school uniform, so why weren’t the kids in black penalized? He shows up on time for class, so how come the protesters were allowed to skip? He was proud that his diesel shop was shedding some of its reputation as being a racist enclave, but he also felt that in the aftermath of the election, there was a double standard emerging in his school.
“We’re going into it for the future,” he said of the vocational program, during an interview outside his home. “And then you’ve got the select few that are dragging the whole school down.”
“White people have to watch exactly what they say. Everybody should. Understandable,” Dalton adds. “But no other minority will come up as quick and call you a racist as . . . “
“A black person,” his mother says, finishing his sentence.
“A black person,” Dalton repeats.
Nylaya has been raised by a white mother and black father, who himself was a graduate of York Tech. He attended in the late 1970s when it seemed a more harmonious place.
“We had nothing that would rile that up like the Trump thing,” said Steve Way, her father. “I went for three years and there was nothing like that.”
Nylaya had some painful moments growing up — like the time her family was staying at a campground and she cried when some white kids wouldn’t play with her because she was black.
But Nylaya learned to mix easily with different races and nationalities. Going to a mostly white elementary and middle school, she relied on a bubbly, easygoing personality to get along with classmates. When she started going to York Tech, she noticed that the school was more self-segregated. Her lunch table is pretty diverse, but she has fewer white friends these days.
“The moment people see someone supporting Trump, they’re automatically a bad person,” she says. “People who liked Trump acted differently. People thought they could say what they want because there’s some powerful guy saying the same thing. That’s how our school was.”
“I still think Trump is racist,” she says. “It’s not even black people, it’s immigrants. He doesn’t like people not from here.”
One recent night at her house, as she worked on homework and polished off a grilled cheese sandwich made by her mother, she mentions some of the debates that break out in school. She says, in an off-the-cuff way, that she often argues with a classmate over Trump and his immigration policies and that the student once told her, “I’ll lynch you.”
“He’ll send me pictures: Look at all of us with the Confederate flag,” she says. “But he’s not racist. He’ll joke around.”
“Really?” her mom, Barbara Estep, says, shocked. “Don’t you think that underneath, he’s not just joking about it?”
“Yeah, he’s just joking,” her dad says, sarcastically. “How many fried chicken jokes you hear from him? How many watermelon jokes?”
Nylaya tries to explain that she just shrugs it off. That it’s no big deal. “You don’t get it,” she tells her mom.
“I don’t,” comes the reply. “I’m sorry. I don’t.”
By Monday, a week after Trump’s election, the school seemed to be getting back to normal. Attendance was back to about 95 percent of students. But the “white power” incident sparked a much wider discussion.
Because there was video footage, York became a focal point for the media. MTV called, wanting to do a reality show about the school. Administrators declined. They also grew defensive and frustrated.
“People used to wear T-shirts with the president on them. Now it’s like an evil sin,” said David Thomas, the school director. “If a student walked down the hallway with a Trump shirt on, it would be videoed and everyone would say, ‘Oh my gosh!’ ”
The shouting of “white power” was a bigger problem, he said, but only one student said it and it was not widespread. The students involved were suspended from school. Thomas declined to say what other discipline was imposed.
“What’s it, three seconds?” Thomas says of the video. “Three seconds of fame, man.”
Soon after Trump was inaugurated in January, the school, adopting the recommendation of a committee of 15 students, hired Carla Christopher, a local activist and artist. Her job as “equity coordinator” was to help navigate sensitive issues of race inside the school and restore trust.
“It was rough getting off the ground,” Christopher said. “They were super afraid of more controversy.”
Issues that might have been uncomfortable pre-Trump had become fraught post-Trump.
During February, Black History Month, students wanted to put up images of a black fist. That was rejected by school officials. They wanted a Black Lives Matter sign. No. They wanted a picture of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831. Again, too controversial.
“’So what, you basically want us to talk about MLK and Rosa Parks and then sit down and be quiet and be good Negroes?’” Christopher said. “The kids were upset. But from the school’s perspective they’re like, ‘We don’t want to open up any cans of worms and have the Confederate flag-wearing students come in and freak out.’ ”
Eventually, the students created a display that included noncontroversial photos and a book by Maya Angelou.
The school also attempted to respond to the rights of gay and transgender students, Christopher said. In late February, when the Trump administration withdrew protections for transgender students in public schools, York Tech opted to show acceptance.
“We said we’re going to protect these students. . . . That was immediately addressed,” Christopher said. “We walked around the school and said, ‘Here’s where we could put more images up to show openness . . . and here’s where we can make bathrooms available for trans or nonbinary students.”
In April, during a national Day of Silence organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the school did several things to raise awareness. There was an assembly. Rainbow bracelets were handed out. The culinary arts department made rainbow cookies.
If anyone complained, Christopher didn’t hear about it.
Christopher also tried to counter the Trump effect by encouraging communication between students of different backgrounds.
Toward the end of the academic year, the school held a cultural assembly. Students shared stories of their family origins. A sophomore talked about how her father was an undocumented immigrant. A junior talked about feeling so isolated that he attempted suicide, and another junior talked about experiencing racial discrimination.
“Students told their real stories, their personal stories, and shared them,” Christopher said. “They were respected and well-treated.”
A reggae band from Madagascar played, and a spontaneous dance party broke out.
Suddenly, a group of white students from the diesel shop rose and walked toward the center of the floor.
“Some of the teachers were a little concerned. ‘Oh, is this not going to go well?’ ” Christopher said. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, there’s going to be a riot.’ ”
Then the diesel shop kids began dancing. They had their arms around each other. Everything seemed to shift, at least in the moment.
“Kids were crying,” Christopher said. “’This is so beautiful, this makes me feel hopeful.’”
“Everyone started like caring about each other — no matter who you were,” Nylaya said. “That just made everybody forget about the whole Trump thing — well not really forget. No one ever forgot. But pretend to forget.”
Students noticed the change immediately when they arrived for the first day of school in this academic year. The ceiling of the main hallway, above the spot where students staged their “black out” almost a year earlier, had been festooned with more than two dozen national flags. They represent the origins of the diverse student body; the flag most recently installed was from Togo.
To some, it was a feeling of more inclusiveness. To others, it was a sign of overreaction.
“It’s America. We don’t need all the other flags from these other countries,” said Ethan Braham, a junior at the school. “It’s just kind of stupid. I know they’re trying to show diversity, but that’s not diverse. That’s just hanging a flag and making our school look ugly.”
But the point is, the school is trying.
It is putting on a production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” its first musical. Administrators hope to have a talent show. The top administrator wants a drum corps.
Administrators feel that York Tech was unfairly maligned by a brief flare-up that went viral after a tense election. But they have also spent time thinking about Trump’s election, and how to respond inside the walls of the school — including reducing student stress through some leavening of the rigorously focused academic program.
“What it boiled down to was we needed more fun stuff,” Thomas said. “We don’t have an abundance of fun stuff. We don’t even have a music program. It’s a very intensive, serious environment.”
They know they can’t force students to be friends with one another, but they do want them to show mutual respect. Some students are wearing a new T-shirt allowed under the school uniform policy that promotes diversity, with hands of different colors embracing in the middle. And stenciled into the walls near the cafeteria are the shared values of the schools: Professionalism. Empathy. Innovation. Optimism. Integrity. Perseverance.
Talk to parents of York students and the divisions spawned in the Trump era still seem as raw as they were a year ago this month. A year of controversies — from the immigrant ban to national anthem protests to clashes over removing Confederate monuments — have only stiffened the sense of separation.
But the students and administrators at the school seem to have largely moved on.
“We had a bad incident,” Thomas said. “But we aren’t a bad place.”
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