Las Vegas Sun

October 9, 2015

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Bright teens engaged in dialogue offer lessons in civility


Steve Marcus

Zachary Waddell, center, of Palo Verde High School reacts to a student’s comment during the 2011 Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011. With Waddell are Maddy Walsh, left, of Meadows High School and Kevin Cong of Green Valley High School. Nearly 1,000 students from 52 schools participated in the annual event.

2011 Sun Youth Forum

UNLV mascot Hey Reb poses with Chesley Estrada of East Career and Technical Academy and other students before the 2011 Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011. Nearly 1,000 students from 52 schools participated in the annual event. Launch slideshow »

2011 Sun Youth Forum Representatives

Gavin Sweeney of Green Valley High School - 2011 Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum representative Tuesday, November 22, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Fans of talk radio, TV news shows and political rallies have grown accustomed to the rudeness, acrimony and vitriol that typically accompany discussion of politics and public policy. Civility seems a lost virtue.

Imagine, then, what might happen when nearly 1,000 people gather to debate the issues of the day — Afghanistan, immigration, gay marriage, mandated health care, the national debt and education reform.

Such hot-button topics were discussed this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center — with civility and courtesy. Speakers weren’t interrupted, let alone shouted down; opposing views were offered with respect, and rebuttals were on topic and thoughtful.

The participants: some of the brightest juniors and seniors from 52 high schools across the Las Vegas Valley. The event: the 55th annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum, where students — selected by their schools — share their views with their peers and prominent community leaders.

“It’s cool to see what a lot of people our age think about these issues,” said John Rockenbach, a Moapa Valley High School senior and recently named National Merit semifinalist. “It’s also nice to see so many of us are interested in having a meaningful discussion to find some solutions.”

The first forum, created by then-Sun publisher and founder Hank Greenspun, was held in 1956, attracting 96 students from five high schools.

During a lunch break at Tuesday’s forum, Sun Publisher and Editor Brian Greenspun told the students that they were participating in one of the largest and longest-running youth programs of its kind in the nation.

The goal of the forum is twofold: To give students a chance to voice their opinions, but also to give community leaders an opportunity to listen to some of their youngest constituents, Greenspun said.

This year’s Youth Forum brought together 28 moderators, including Greenspun, Rep. Shelley Berkley, several UNLV administrators, business leaders, law enforcement officials and Clark County School Board members.

Berkley participated in the Sun Youth Forum in 1967 and 1968 as a Valley High School student. Now, she’s in her 13th year moderating a forum discussion on international politics.

“It’s come full circle,” Berkley said. “I keep coming back because this reaffirms my extraordinary faith in our high school students. They will be casting their votes in a number of years, so it’s good to hear their opinions.”

Moderators facilitated the discussions but otherwise stayed out of the mix as the students gathered in 28 rooms at the convention center to debate the merits and shortcomings of different policies and proffer solutions to some of the problems they see.

In recent years, many of the Youth Forum discussions have focused on the global economic collapse. In the realm of international politics, that has meant debating Greece’s debt crisis and currency manipulation in China, Berkley said.

In a different group led by Sun Managing Editor Tom Gorman, students discussed the failure of the bipartisan supercommittee to find a compromise, which triggered a conversation about who was to blame.

Students quickly blamed strident partisanship in Washington.

“You put 12 people in a room — six people on one side and six people on another. Do you think they’re going to agree?” Rancho senior Chris Hoffman said.

“Positive change can’t happen because of all the partisanship in this country,” said Jordan Orris, a Green Valley High School senior. “We need to compromise, but I don’t see it happening soon.”

Across the hallway, Sun political columnist Jon Ralston led a discussion on how Nevada can fix its economy. Students posited proposals such as reducing government intervention in trade and business, as well as expanding alternative energy resources.

For many Forum participants, the severe economic downturn has become a personal issue as they look beyond graduation to college and their future job prospects. In a random survey of 87 students, about a third said there was an unemployed adult in their household.

While many students are optimistic about finding jobs in the future, some students have begun to despair as Nevada enters its sixth year of the economic collapse.

“I’m not as optimistic about getting a job as I was last year,” Las Vegas Academy senior Elsa Edgar said. “All around me, I see people being laid off and it is an unsettling feeling. College will increase my chances of getting and keeping a job.”

Southeast Career Technical Academy senior Carlos Delgadillo agreed: “The economy is a wreck, but hopefully college will make a difference in the opportunities I may have,” he said. “But the American dream just seems to be harder and harder to reach.”

Fourth-year moderator Terri Janison, director of community relations for Gov. Brian Sandoval and a former School Board president, said she sympathizes with current high school students. Her daughter, a Palo Verde senior, was a Youth Forum participant this year.

Janison said her office is working to make sure students — especially those participating in the Youth Forum — return to Nevada after college. Eighty-two percent of the students polled by the Sun said they do not plan to live in Nevada as an adult.

“We want to make sure we have a job for them when they graduate,” Janison said. “We don’t what our best and brightest students to leave.”

Greenspun, a longtime moderator and former participant in the forum, focused his group of students on finding ways to improve Nevada’s education system.

“What do you do with a kid who isn’t performing well?” he asked the students. “We need to fix our schools. It’s from this one issue all other issues stem.”

Many students pointed to the school budget cuts that have decimated extracurricular programs and curtailed Advanced Placement classes at some schools. More funding is the answer, they argued.

“I strongly believe it’s opportunities that separate people in this room (from those outside),” said August Hastings, a Desert Oasis junior. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t take AP classes my sophomore year.”

Other students weren’t so sure if more funding would help Clark County schools. Some argued instead for more rigorous standards, better teacher evaluations and greater parental involvement.

“We threw money at education,” Desert Pines senior Aleighza Carpenter said in exasperation. “Between 1960 and 2005, we had a 150 percent increase in education funding but we’re still failing.”

“But did our population grow as well?” Greenspun asked, adding that the population boom may have outpaced funding increases. “Better check those facts.”

Down the hallway, School Board President Carolyn Edwards monitored a student-driven discussion on teenagers’ use of technology, from “sexting” to cyberbullying.

Some students worried about their increasing dependence on cellphones, video games and the Internet. They shared personal stories about siblings and friends seemingly “addicted” to technology, spending hours in front of a computer screen and constantly texting.

“My stepbrother, all he does is play video games,” Bishop Gorman High School senior Danielle Harry said. “I’m worried about the kids in the future. Are they going to have that childhood memory of going to the park to have fun?”

“How many of you sit down and have family dinners?” Edwards asked the group of about 30 students, the majority of whom raised their hands. “That’s good,” she said. “Now what are some solutions?”

Northwest Career and Technical Academy senior Kurtis Vandersteld said he is worried about the negative health effects of video games and computers. But he contends it may be difficult to wean teenagers off technology.

“I would ban video games, but I love them too,” he said, smiling.

Although students were wrapped up for much of the day in adult debates, they were treated to some kids’ moments too. Organizers hosted a lunchtime performance from the popular dance crew Jabbawockeez. Students jived to the music, and a group of students clamored to the front with cellphone cameras in hand.

Afterward, Greenspun presented $1,000 college scholarships to five randomly selected students.

One of them, Legacy senior Roudel Perez, said that while he appreciated the help, he was just grateful for the opportunity to share his opinions with politicians and business leaders.

“Adults sometimes overlook us, but we have our own views,” Perez said. “It’s great we got the experience to show that, even though we’re the younger generation.”

Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones, who dropped in to several discussion groups, said afterward: “I continue to be amazed at how capable these students are. They’re a great reminder for adults that we can do much more for these kids.”

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