• Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2021 •

School leaders are no strangers to high-pressure situations. But over the past several years, schools have been the hotbed for political pressure from responding to immigration policy to teaching curriculum about race and racism and creating safe spaces for transgender students. While many educational policies come with mandates and enforcement protocols, some extend their influence into schools through a powerful chilling effect.

A political chilling effect occurs when a policy creates fear, confusion or uncertainty about its implementation, especially when the policy language is vague and left open to interpretation but carries high-stakes consequences or penalties.

The danger of these policies is that they can cause enough fear to discourage people from engaging in completely lawful behaviors. In schools, they can prevent school officials from feeling empowered to protect the rights of teachers, students and families.

Policies with a chilling effect can undo school policies and practices that promote equitable learning for students and are often designed to do just that. However, school leaders can be equipped with strategies to melt the political chilling effects and educate students equitably and uphold their civil rights.

Recent Laws with Chilling Effects

Several major policies in recent years include chilling effects that crept into classrooms. For instance, anti-immigrant policies from the federal and state governments in 2017 created fear in school communities about the rights of students, regardless of citizenship, to attend public schools (Burkett & Hayes, 2018). While those rights were never overturned, reports of immigration enforcement occurring near school districts to target parents quickly sent a chilling effect to students, families and teachers. School leaders faced drops in attendance, spikes in students’ stress levels, and even withdrawals from enrollment as families feared that schools would become hotbeds for immigration enforcement (Dee & Murphy, 2019; Martínez, 2019).

Some districts combated this chilling effect by passing affirming policies, hosting “Know Your Rights” trainings, and offering community resources, such as counseling services (Sikes, 2020).

Chilling effects from bad policy can seriously harm students and schools. But strong school leadership can melt their icy impact in favor of warming, welcoming and culturally-sustaining school practices.

Similarly, classroom censorship bills that have taken over news media and state legislatures impose a chilling effect on teachers’ and school leaders’ teaching of race, racism and racial history. For example, the newest classroom censorship law in Texas does not include specific penalties for teachers or districts and does include a section to protect teachers from being privately sued for discussing racial concepts outlined in the bill.

Yet, the bill is having an undeniable chilling effect on how teachers believe they can teach, discuss or be trained on issues related to race, on how school districts can offer experience-based civics education (Kao, 2021), and on how school leaders like principals can provide an honest curriculum about U.S. racial history. For instance, recent incidents involved guidance to teach a supportive view of the Holocaust in Carroll ISD (Hixenbaugh & Hylton, 2021), a cancelled visit from a book author and banned books in Katy ISD (Saavedra, 2021), and disputes over diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in Eanes ISD (Hooks, 2021).

Additionally, recent legislation concerning trans students’ ability to participate in school sports carries a chilling effect for safe school climates for students. Bills that exclude trans students from participating in the school sport consistent with their gender identity have been discussed across the country (Freedom for All Americans, 2021) especially in Southern states. This type of legislation creates hostile school climates for trans students and spurs a chilling effect on safe school spaces that promote inclusivity, anti-bullying and LGBTQ+ allyship and support (GLSEN, 2020).

Whether or not these bills are reasonably enforceable by school staff, the high-profile debate and passage already have a chilling effect on students’ ability to express their gender identity to educators and to engage safely in their school settings even outside of sports.

School Leaders Can Take Steps to Melt Chilling Effects

School leaders can refuse to be cooled by the chilling effects of bad policy. Leaders at the campus and district level can take a system-wide approach to develop safe, sustaining schools that benefit all students, especially those most marginalized by a particular chilling effect.

Importantly, chilling effects often rely on misinformation, confusion and fear of consequences or retribution to quell an activity. School leaders can shed light by spreading evidence-based information about school policies and practices, by engaging with community members to educate them on policies and the district’s approach, and by publicly resisting the chilling pressures of state and federal policymakers.

Policies and Practices for School Leaders to Create Warmer Schools

Leaders in education have the duty to uphold students’ civil rights and provide truthful, evidence-based information to students and families. Since chilling effects often depend on misinformation to spread fear and cool people’s behavior or actions, leaders are in the unique role to educate and enlighten their school communities to halt a chilling effect’s influence. For example, during immigration enforcement raids near schools, some schools spread truthful information about students’ legal rights to attend public schools (IDRA, 2021) regardless of their or their families’ citizenship status.

Authentic family and community engagement strategies also provide a key strategy to melt chilling effects (Montemayor, 2019). Some political chilling effects arise when small groups of parents or other community members rally around the effect to spread fear and demand consequences. By authentically engaging families and school communities, leaders can counter those demands from a few that may not be in the best interest or desires of the broader school community. Moreover, school leaders and families can develop a network of support to counteract the chilling effect, providing greater strength to resisting political pressures (Crawford, 2017). This includes centering the voices and experiences of students and families most negatively impacted by the chilling effect in any district or leadership actions.

Sometimes, leaders must publicly resist policies that rely on chilling effects and other methods of enforcement to spread bad policies in schools. For instance, when the chilling effect of recent censorship bills extended to the Little Elm ISD school board in a discussion to revoke the ethnic studies program it had just passed several months prior, a school board member clearly and publicly spoke to the political motivation of the proposal (Gravley, 2021). Dallas ISD passed a resolution earlier this year affirming racial equity efforts in the district in response to censorship legislation as well (Dallas ISD, 2021). Public resistance may be much easier for school leaders if they have effectively engaged local families and community members on the issue and distributed truthful information that negates the chilling effect.

Chilling effects from bad policy can seriously harm students and schools. But strong school leadership can melt their icy impact in favor of warming, welcoming and culturally-sustaining school practices.


Burkett, J., & Hayes, S. (2018). Campus Administrators Responses to Donald Trump’s Immigration Policy: Leadership During Times of Uncertainty, International Journal of Educational Leadership and Management, 6(2), 98-125.

Crawford, E.R. (2017). The Ethic of Community and Incorporating Undocumented Immigrant Concerns into Ethical School Leadership, Educational Administration Quarterly, 53(2), 147-179.

Dallas ISD. (May 10, 2021). Trustees Approve Resolution Against Proposed Legislation that Could Harm District’s Racial Equity Efforts, The Hub.

Dee, T.S., & Murphy, M. (2019). Vanished Classmates: The Effects of Local Immigration Enforcement on School Enrollment, American Educational Research Journal.

Freedom for All Americans. (2021). Legislative Tracker: Anti-Transgender Student Athletics, website.

GLSEN. (2020). The 2019 National School Climate Survey – The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. GLSEN.

Gravley, G. (2021). Little Elm ISD Avoids Removing Ethnic Studies Courses in Monday Meeting, The Little Elm Journal.

Hixenbaugh, M., & Hylton, A. (October 14, 2021). Southlake School Leader Tells Teachers to Balance Holocaust Books with “Opposing” Views, NBC News.

Hooks, C. (November 2021). Critical Race Fury: The School Board Wars are Getting Nasty in Texas, Texas Monthly.

IDRA. (2021). Education of Immigrant Children, webpage.

Kao, J. (2021). McKinney Ends Youth and Government Class Due to New Texas Social Studies Law, The Texas Tribune.

Martínez, J. (September 2019). Impact of Social Climate on Students in Schools presentation, IDRA EAC-South Supporting Students in the Wake of Violence. IDRA.

Montemayor, A.M. (September 2019). Superintendent Dr. Daniel King Describes How Strong Family Leadership Leads to School Innovation, IDRA Newsletter.

Saavedra, N. (October 14, 2021). Banned books back on shelves in Katy ISD after parents claimed author was teaching ‘critical race theory,’ Click2Houston.

Sikes, C. (2020). Making Sense in Uncertain Times: School District Leaders’ Racial Sensemaking of Immigration Enforcement and Policy, doctoral dissertation.

Sikes, C. (September 16, 2021). Texas SB 3 Makes New Changes to Social Studies Learning Standards, Knowledge is Power.

Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D., is IDRA’s deputy director of policy. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at chloe.sikes@idra.org.

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]