Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016 | 2 a.m.
In an era when teenagers and cellphones are seemingly inseparable — at least according to the narrative commonly propagated — a peculiar thing happened this week inside a Las Vegas Convention Center room.
A group of high school students sat in a circle, electronic devices untouched, and listened to their peers with rapt attention. The topic: family dynamics and the struggles they can breed.
“I hate Christmas. I hate Thanksgiving,” said Faith Rose, a senior at Sierra Vista High School, who was describing the fallout of a divorce. “We were such a close-knit family, and now no one talks to each other.”
The raw and often emotional conversation was one of dozens occurring simultaneously Tuesday during the 60th annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum. The discussion-oriented event, which lets teens share their thoughts about local, national and global issues, corralled nearly 1,000 students from 52 area high schools.
In this particular room, dialogue about teens’ relationships with their parents veered into a poignant conversation about home life when one student asked how many group members came from broken families. Hands shot up around the room, totaling nearly 70 percent of the students.
They spoke candidly about how divorces and separations affected them, whether it be increased pressure to care for younger siblings, feelings of loneliness or abandonment, gratitude that it resulted in a safer home setting or trauma from prolonged arguing and tension between parents.
Lily Viano-Seubert, a junior at Desert Oasis High School, said she noticed herself raising her voice during emotional situations — a trait she may have inherited from her divorced parents who frequently argued. She’s working to curb that reaction and believes the adversity she experienced at home will help make her a better person in the long run.
“The humanity I have is because I’ve seen my family struggle,” she said.
The topic also surfaced on anonymous surveys that dozens of students filled out during the youth forum. A question seeking teens’ definition of the “American Dream” yielded many responses that weaved family harmony into the equation, along with equal opportunity and financial stability.
A senior at Coronado High School defined the ideal as “building a strong family and future” through “perseverance and hard work.”
A student across from town at Bonanza High School described the “American Dream” simply as a happy family. “I believe there are many versions of this, and it all lies in a happy, secure, stable family,” the student wrote.
Finances appear to weigh heavily on Southern Nevada teens as well, with 41 percent of students surveyed citing cost as the biggest factor in determining where to attend college. An almost equal amount of students said their families had been impacted by unemployment.
Students in a group moderated by Clark County School District’s superintendent, Pat Skorkowsky, voted to first discuss whether schools should teach personal finance. The teens overwhelmingly favored increasing financial literacy in the district’s curriculum, calling it a logical path to responsible adulthood.
Ryan Ballard, a senior at Foothill High School, said that initiative should include education about credit cards, student loans and taxes, among other money-related topics that will be relevant in their everyday lives.
“It’s hard to learn when you’re already stuck in $40,000 of debt,” he said, rationalizing the need for better financial education to prevent debt. “If we don’t start teaching the new generations now, it’s just going to keep building and building.”
It’s an issue of particular relevance in Nevada, which ranked 48th among state regarding personal finance in 2016, according to the nonprofit Corporation for Enterprise Development. The dismal ranking is a reflection of residents’ poor credit scores, reliance on subprime credit and higher likelihood to file for bankruptcy, among other indicators.
And it wouldn’t be 2016 without a healthy election-related discussion. Students sounded off on Donald Trump’s election victory despite not winning the popular vote, with some saying it prompted a need for election reform.
Brittany Biggs, of Mojave High, noted that this year wasn’t the first time the winner of the popular vote didn’t carry the election. It’s occurred four times, and the fifth will occur this year assuming that final results show Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, as expected.
“If the Electoral College has a 7 percent failure rate, why should we still use it?” Biggs said.
Peter Grema, who attends West Career and Technical Academy, suggested that voters would be better served if Electoral College votes were proportioned to the results of popular vote. For instance, California’s 55 electoral votes would be split into 34 for Clinton and 21 for Trump based on the unofficial results of Clinton winning 62 percent of the vote there.
Splitting the votes, Grema argued, would give candidates incentive to campaign intensively in every state, not just swing states like Nevada.
“I don’t understand why it’s a winner-take-all system,” Grema said.
Coronado High student Langdon Kane said the Electoral College system also played a role in creating a “fundamental problem in our voting system when the two nominee were distrusted and disliked by the majority of the people.”
“The Electoral College is a huge hindrance for third parties,” he said. “Ross Perot got (more than) 10 percent of the popular vote in 1992 but didn’t get a single Electoral College vote.”
Trump’s lack of experience prompted debate about whether the Constitution should be amended to add requirements for presidential candidates.
Mayra Velarde, of Northwest Career and Technical Academy, said she believed candidates should be required to have served as vice president, a term as senator or four years in a Cabinet position or as a governor.
But Bonanza High Chance DeRiso strongly disagreed, calling such requirements un-American. The more broad and diverse the candidate pool, he argued, the more ideas come to the table. And the more ideas, the better chance of finding solutions.
“You’d be limiting exponentially the number of people who could run” by adding requirements, he said.
In another classroom, students tackled the complex situation in Syria, where a bloody civil war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions more to flee the war-torn Middle Eastern nation.
“This is a humanitarian crisis at this point,” said Katelyn Schulz, a junior at Silverado High School. “America should be accepting more refugees.”
Not everyone shared her opinion. Some group members favored increasing material aid in lieu of accepting more Syrian refugees; others adamantly opposed American military involvement, citing Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of failed interventions.
“We tend to want to overthrow these regimes in the name of good, but we tend to create more bloodshed,” said Jorge Salas, a senior at Western High School.
By early afternoon, a line of school buses flanked the convention center’s entrance, signaling an end to the youth forum but not necessarily an end to the dialogue. Thoughtful conversations spilled into the hallways, cellphones still largely out of sight.