When Palo Alto High School sophomore Jackson Druker wore his red "Make America Great Again" hat to school last year, he said he was bullied, harassed and even physically assaulted.
Students took his hat and stepped on it. Others cursed at him. One student punched him in the back of his head, he said. Another told him "I literally want to shoot you right now if you don't take off that hat," he said during a class presentation on the experience. Druker's account with online schoolwork-management system Schoology was hacked and his contact information changed to firstname.lastname@example.org, he said.
He was sent to the office — "on the pretense I was saying hurtful things," he said — and when he returned later to report the physical assault, administrators told him to not wear the hat so as to prevent other incidents.
Druker was in the midst of an experiment: testing what he calls "the hypocrisy of tolerance" at his high school.
"Paly is supposed to be one of the most socially accepting places," Druker said in an interview with the Weekly. "We're taught not to discriminate based on religion or race or sexual orientation. If we can be tolerant of that, why can't we be tolerant of someone saying, 'We like the president'?"
The sophomore identifies as a conservative and is the treasurer of a new club for other politically like-minded students who often feel uncomfortable openly voicing their views in a community known for its liberal leanings.
This fall, junior Yasmeen Gavande founded the Paly chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a national advocacy organization that helps high school and college students promote conservatism. She attended a conference the organization hosted this summer at Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara and returned to school this fall inspired to address what she calls the "liberal status quo" at Paly.
"It's almost a dogma that you are a liberal," she told the Weekly. "A lot of kids won't even say they're conservative because of a fear that they'll be attacked."
The first week of school, a flyer appeared on campus inviting students to join a "conservative safe-space club." Above a photo of former President Ronald Reagan and an American flag was the headline, "Calling all against injustice and oppression!"
"Paly has become a school with a very strong liberal bias, preventing us from expressing our conservative opinions. All students deserve a safe space to express their political views and opinions," the flyer stated.
Gavande, a young woman of color, said students have called her a racist and misogynist for supporting President Donald Trump. She insisted she supports policies, not people. The infamous comments Trump made about women in a leaked Access Hollywood video don't "translate" into his efficacy as a president, she argued.
Gavande hopes the club will not only provide a way for conservative students to meet but also spur awareness and conversations with others with opposing views. She plans to bring in conservative speakers and host debates with other student groups, such as the Democrats Club and Intersectional Feminism Club.
"One of the other reasons that Yasmeen made this club is because we want to make our mark here and say, 'We're just the same as everyone,'" Druker said. "We're no different from you.'"
Gavande said conservative stances on free speech, capitalism, abortion and limited government all resonate with her. She bristles at the idea of "safe spaces" at school — a new trend on college campuses in which students, particularly those who feel marginalized, are provided places where they gather and can feel safe. Critics say these spaces insulate students from diverse or opposing opinions.
During lunch last Thursday, Gavande, Druker and six other Paly students sat together in an empty classroom for the club's second meeting. In a wide-ranging, open discussion, they talked about whether the NFL protests are justified — it's within athletes' free-speech rights to protest, but it's disrespectful to the flag, Druker argued — and the implications of the Las Vegas shooting on the Second Amendment, among other issues.
"I don't think we should ban guns, but we do need limits," one student said. Another chimed in about the current state background checks, and others voiced concern about restricting citizens' right to defend themselves with guns.
Conservative junior Gregor Tillman said he hasn't felt comfortable expressing his political views on campus before. Though he's never experienced harassment on campus, that's "because I've been hiding this for most of school."
He said he's glad to have a space at school to talk to others about politics. Tillman and other members also hope to engage other students and welcome members who aren't conservative.
Druker said he was surprised not by the negative reactions to his "Make America Great Again" hat but by the positive ones. More people than he thought respected his right to freedom of speech, and some engaged in respectful debate with him.
"I hope this club will help create a higher tolerance for opposing viewpoints," he said. "I hope that it will help make a more open-minded campus by showing people that it's OK to think differently."