Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Once again, high school students in Clark County showed politicians how it can be done — how opposing points of view over such hot-button topics as immigration, gay marriage, taxes, education quality and health care can be discussed without shouting, without arguing and with respect for other points of view.
That’s how it played out last week at the Las Vegas Convention Center, where nearly 1,000 students gathered to participate in the 58th annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum.
Unlike the mudslinging, belittlement and intolerance on display not just during overheated campaign seasons but, increasingly during legislative sessions, students raised hands to speak rather than talking over each other, showed respect for each other’s opinions and acknowledged afterward that they even changed their positions on some issues, persuaded by the rationale of others. There was no grandstanding, no taunting, no name-calling, no sarcasm.
Instead, armed with reason and research and detached from hard-line partisanship, these teenagers thoughtfully discussed some of the most contentious issues facing the community, state and nation.
Terri Janison said moderating at the Sun Youth Forum — this was her eighth year — is one of her favorite professional activities of the year.
“Each time I am amazed at the respect these young adults have for one another,” said Janison, vice president for community development at the United Way of Southern Nevada. “One of the topics — airport security in the United States — became very real because of the varied culture and religious backgrounds of the students. They were in disagreement due to different experiences from their travels, but they were civil and thoughtful of each other during the discussion — behavior you hope to see mirrored by adults.”
The annual event was established in 1955 by Sun founder and then-publisher Hank Greenspun as a forum in which some of the brightest and most articulate among the community’s teenagers could express their opinions not just among themselves but also have the ear of the adult establishment. The first forum drew 96 students; this year’s was 10 times that many, representing 50 schools.
Sponsored by the Greenspun Family Foundation in cooperation with the Clark County School District, the Sun Youth Forum is one of the longest running youth forums in the country.
“If the Nevada Legislature listened to our discussion on how to improve schools … they’d learn something,” Janie Greenspun Gale, managing partner of Niche Media and one of the moderators, told students during the lunch break. “They’d learn what you guys want and what would really benefit our state. We need each and every one of you if we’re going to make it.”
Brian Cram, director of the Greenspun Family Foundation and former Clark County School District superintendent, echoed Gale’s sentiment: “They came up with solutions I wish politicians would think of.”
This year, the Youth Forum brought together 28 moderators from the ranks of business and community leaders to help facilitate discussions.
Moderators included U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware II, Clark County District Judge Frank Sullivan, former Nevada first lady Sandy Miller, and a host of elected officials and administrators representing the Clark County Commission, Las Vegas City Council and Clark County School Board.
Students touched on topics that spanned from marijuana to same-sex marriage to whether the U.S. should be a willing participant in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. While some topics generated highly researched and polished arguments that reflected a spectrum of opinions, others were filled with emotion and personal experience.
For instance, during a discussion about bullying, one group of students fell silently spellbound as one student after another shared personal experiences of being bullied. Virtually every student acknowledged having been a victim of bullying, and most said it was worse in middle school than high school. There was consensus that bullying should be addressed firmly and aggressively in schools — and that teachers and administrators in many schools don’t sufficiently deal with the problem.
When the topic turned to immigration issues in that same group, one student tearfully recalled her family’s struggles living in poverty in Peru and how they dreamed of coming to the United States for a better life. The speaker, and others, said it felt to them white immigrants seemed welcomed while there was little tolerance for immigrants of color.
The quality of education was a common theme throughout the convention center’s meeting rooms, and the students’ reflections fell on eager ears. “I’m listening not only to moderate your session, but also to make things better for you,” said moderator Kim Wooden, deputy superintendent of schools.
Participants discussed everything from improving sex education to shortening the school week. Students in one group talked about whether teachers should be allowed to carry guns for protection. Most feared it would provide too many chances for students to get their hands on a weapon.
“It’s more dangerous than it is for protection,” said Hung Le, a senior at Advanced Technologies Academy. “It’s not really safe for the environment.”
Education remained an issue down the hallway in El Mundo newspaper publisher Eddie Escobedo Jr.’s room, where students discussed how to meet higher international academic standards.
Some students felt the issue involved more funding, not just in the classroom but to provide social services for student well-being.
“One in five children go to bed hungry,” one student said. “You can’t learn if you are hungry, so funding has to be for everything.”
Other students called for less emphasis on rote teaching for tests and more on developing actual skills.
“We’re only learning how to take tests,” said Silverado High School senior Asimwe Oben-Nyarko. “Rarely do you have a teacher that breaks from the standard.”
Garrett O’Toole, a Moapa Valley High School senior, suggested U.S. education follow Germany’s model of students electing a career and then attending schools that specialize in that particular field.
Other students disagreed, citing the importance of being able to explore different career possibilities while in school. Either way, most teens agreed the current education model wasn’t working.
In recent years, many of the Youth Forum discussions centered on Nevada’s economy as students prepared for life after high school.
While many teens this year expressed optimism for their future, several expressed concerns about rising college-tuition costs and their ability to pay off student loans after college.
In an unscientific survey of about 130 students at the event, 94 percent said they planned to apply for financial aid and/or scholarships. Two students said they didn’t plan to attend college.
“I really want to be optimistic about my future, but I’m honestly worried,” said Carolina Cisneros, a junior at Liberty High School. “I’m worried about my financial stability and not being able to pay for college.”
Shadow Ridge High School senior Ben Bartholomeo echoed Cisneros’ fears about college tuition.
“I feel like I have a plan for schooling, but I still need to look at more options for myself, and maybe, military service,” Bartholomeo said. “Nothing but paying off school loans worries me.”
Their sensitivity toward economic stress is well founded: 57 percent of students said their family had been affected by unemployment, and 13 percent dealt with home foreclosures.
As in past years, most students said they did not plan to live in Nevada as adults. Nearly 75 percent of students said improving education remained the most important issue facing the state.
While students used the forum to debate their viewpoints on issues, they also agreed on several topics, even coming to some solutions.
In one room, nearly every student agreed the district’s sex-education program needed improvement, with students saying teaching only abstinence doesn’t thwart sex but leaves participants less informed about contraception and protection.
Students also gained new perspectives throughout the event. Oben-Nyarko said discussion about adopting English as the official national language made him appreciate the diversity of the country, as heard in the many languages spoken in the United States.
“It brought the concept of what it means to be American into question,” Oben-Nyarko said. “There is no real definition to be American, and I think that’s great.”
The day was a mixture of serious discussions, good fun — lunchtime entertainment was provided by “V-The Ultimate Variety Show” — and, for three students, good fortune.
In a drawing, three students won $1,000 scholarships: Virgin Valley High School senior Edgar Cruz, East Career & Technical Academy senior Stephany Soto and Canyon Springs High School senior Jake Wier.
Wier said the Youth Forum was a great opportunity for students to have their voices heard.
“It gives us the opportunity to speak to adults in the community and tell them how we really feel,” Wier said.
By day’s end, Cram, executive director of the Greenspun Family Foundation, said he felt the future was in good hands.
“It made me confident for our future,” Cram said. “They can provide solutions my generation did not think of and the current generation isn’t doing.”