NEW YORK — It’s never been easy to be a high schooler, but being one in such a divisive, finger-pointing culture is something most adults from the Myspace era and before never had to deal with.
"You have the, 'I don't want to say anything wrong' side, whether that be to the teacher or in front of the class, or making sure you don't say anything harmful in the halls or to other people," said William Rosen, a senior at Manhattan's Birch Wathen Lenox School, a K-12 college preparatory school.
Rosen says that he notices his peers are self-censoring or deliberately not sharing their thoughts and opinions in class because of fear of retribution.
It’s something that continues to be glaringly and painfully apparent to their headmaster, Bill Kuhn.
"People sort themselves into teams, red team, blue team, liberal, conservative, anti this, pro that," he said.
Kuhn was so moved by what he was witnessing in the halls and classes that he to wrote Washington Post op-ed about the topic.
"When controversial topics did arise, I noticed students were quiet. I noticed students did not express themselves when it came to a particular viewpoint," he said.
According to 2021 data from CollegePulse, 80% of college students said they self-censor some of the time and 21% said they do it often.
A recent Knight Foundation poll revealed that 19% of high schoolers feel very comfortable with sharing opinions in person.
"What we'd recognize is we'd moved beyond simple disagreements. We'd moved towards really demonizing those who disagreed with us," said Caroline Mehl, co-founder of the Constructive Dialogue Institute, a nonprofit that provides online and in-person educational tools to teach young people how to feel comfortable sharing their opinions.
The goal is to teach young people how to teach young people to express their opinions in a productive way.
"Our hope is that more and more this will become incorporated into just standard education," she said.
At Birch Wathen Lenox, the school has a program where students are trained in conflict resolution and mediation to help other students have difficult conversations.
"Oftentimes, people are like, 'Let's not bring it into the classroom.' If you don't bring it into the classroom, where are you gonna learn to do it?" said Brooke Jaffe, also a senior and one of the school's prefects.
"There's so many different kinds of people who identify differently, believe differently. Being able to learn how to have those conversations, being learned how to interact with them, I, personally, believe is essential," she said.
So many foundations start in the classroom and this is one many believe is crucial for First Amendment to remain a priority.
"We need to foster the idea of freedom of thought and freedom of expression and do it in a way that is kind and judgment-free to a degree, and giving the benefit of the doubt to the speaker," said Kuhn.