Only a fraction of Brown County High School students are old enough to vote, but the 2016 presidential election is still something everyone is talking about.
The candidacies of Republican Donald J. Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders have particularly galvanized attention at the school, students said.
Several students attended the rallies of Trump, Sanders and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last week, as presidential candidates descended on Indiana ahead of the state’s primary election.
“It was awesome,” said senior Aubrey Seaman about a Trump event at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
“The atmosphere was great. It was just really great to be around other Trump supporters, because I don’t have a lot of that at my school or around here, so that was nice,” he said.
“It was kind of like being at a sporting event. That made it really fun.”
Seaman believes the businessman will help bring jobs to America.
Most of Seaman’s friends support Sanders, the Democratic senator from Vermont, he said.
But he has been able to find common ground in political conversations with one friend, Andrew Brown, a senior.
Brown attended a Cruz rally, but he’s decided to support Trump because he believes Cruz’s views are too narrow.
“The only reason I would be a moderate is because this country is so polarized. You’ve got two sides of the spectrum, and I would try to work for a middle. I’ve got conservative values, but some things you have to just look over,” he said.
Brown believes the majority of his Sanders-supporting classmates like Sanders because of social media and because of Sanders’ plan to make public higher education free and increase the minimum wage.
“That’s where they all get their information. They get them off memes, like, ‘Oh, he’s funny, so let’s vote for him.’ They just see little zingers on the Internet and they think that reflects his policies,” Brown said.
“They are just seeing dollar signs,” he said.
For Sanders supporters Sarah Barrick, a junior, and Chris Ratzburg, a freshman, it’s about equality, the environment and education.
“I am all about having an equal voice, no matter your religion, or your race. … He’s really shown that he’s going to fight for that,” Barrick said.
Barrick, Ratzburg and junior Cash Myers attended rallies for Sanders and for Trump.
The trio also is working to create a Young Democrats group at the high school.
Myers is split between supporting Sanders and his Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He likes Sanders’ stance on social issues but believes Clinton has more experience.
At the rallies, the students noticed some differences.
“You can feel it in the air, just kind of the difference. You don’t even have to have eyes to feel the difference because in the Trump rally you could just feel the hatred,” Myers said.
“He got the whole pavilion to start chanting, ‘Build that wall.’ It was terrifying,” Barrick said.
At the Sanders rally April 27 at Indiana University, the students said Sanders respectfully addressed his opponents when disagreeing with them, while Trump used terms like “Crooked Hillary” when talking about Clinton.
Barrick noticed that Trump often used the words “You” or “You all” when talking to the crowd at his rally, while Sanders spoke using “We.”
“For him to just kind of unify everybody really helped strengthen my support,” she said.
Nearly 70 percent of new voter registrations in Brown County this primary season came from the under-25 population.Fifty-three percent of them were teenagers.
Getting involved and learning about the candidates is essential for young people, the students said.
“You’re saving the nation. Everybody needs to be informed because you vote for these people and they set up policies and they just change your nation in any way,” Brown said.
“You should be educated because just throwing away your vote makes the right to vote completely meaningless,” Myers said.
“Since this is our country, and we have to think about not only us but our children and grandchildren, I want to make sure this is a country that I would feel comfortable with them living in,” Barrick said.
Barrick, Myers and sophomore Lane Rice are all graduates of the Brown County Junior High School We the People program, which has won two national championships for civics knowledge.
Rice, 16, credits that program with deepening his understanding of how the government works. He said the class also taught him to look at both sides of the argument before passing judgment.
Even though Rice is not old enough to vote in this election, he has listened to every presidential candidate debate, except for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, on the radio.
High school social studies teacher Kevin Greve is teaching a current events class this semester to a mixed-age classroom.
He’s had fun helping students find their political voice, using sites like iSideWith.com to match them with the candidate who lines up with their views.
Social studies teacher Gerry Long said students seem to more interested in this presidential election than the local election — which he said is typical — even though this ballot also contains a referendum asking for more funding for Brown County Schools.
His classes focus more on the presidential office and the electoral process rather than individual candidates, but he has noticed which candidates students prefer.
“Some seem intrigued by Trump. As far as the other candidates, there’s kind of a gender split on Clinton,” Long said.
“The kids want to know more,” Greve said. “They want to know what’s so polarizing about Donald Trump.
“Same thing with Bernie Sanders. What’s a socialist?” he said. “They want to learn, and they are eager to learn.”
That’s exactly what teachers want to see.
“I want students and young people and everybody in this community to continue to understand the importance of voting and their civic duty, and how awesome it is as American citizens that we get the opportunity to do this,” Greve said.