As voters line up on Election Day to make their choices, so will Brown County Junior High School students.
Seventh- and eighth-graders were to participate in the Indiana Kids’ Election, sponsored by the Indiana State Bar Association, the Indiana Secretary of State and the Indiana Department of Education.
Their votes for president, governor and Indiana’s U.S. Senate seat will be tabulated by social studies teachers.
Though theirs won’t result in anyone actually being elected, these 12- to 13-year-olds have strong opinions, particularly on the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
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“Hillary and Trump are at each other’s throats a lot. It’s like a big war,” seventh-grader Mia Bryce said. “It’s kind of getting to the point where it’s almost out of hand because they’re attacking each other more than they should.”
“They’re acting like two kids fighting over a toy,” classmate Aiden Vaught said.
Under Indiana law, schools are required to teach students in sixth through ninth grades about the process two weeks before a general election.
BCJHS students have compared candidate speeches, learned about the steps leading up to an election and visited websites like ISideWith.com to figure out which candidates best represent their views in the presidential and congressional races.
Social studies teacher Amy Oliver said she’s said she’s been trying to get students to think about the role they want government to play in their lives and trying to teach them how to become truly educated about where candidates stand on the issues.
“The point is, you’re going to have 20 more elections in your lifetime,” she said about her students. “It’s not going to be Trump and Clinton when you vote.
“The goal is, how do you research? How do you evaluate your sources? How do you figure out which matches your personal philosophy and how do you find that information? And how do you become an educated voter? That’s what we’re all about,” she said.
One of the lessons learned so far, from student Marie Fields:
“You may not be the biggest person in society. You can work at McDonald’s, but your opinion still does matter (when you vote),” she said.
Oliver has been personally familiar with the election process for decades. Her husband won four races for Brown County prosecutor and her father was the editor of The Republic newspaper. She said one of the challenges she faces is that students continually ask her who she is voting for, and she must remain unbiased in the classroom.“I said it doesn’t matter who Mrs. Oliver is voting for, and I don’t want you to think that I am telling you who to vote for,” she said.
“That’s not my job. My job is to teach you to think for yourself based upon what you think your personal philosophy is. I can help you discover what your personal philosophy is.”
How does she take herself out of the equation? “You have to always think about how you’re phrasing things. Making sure you’re being fair to both candidates and trying to keep their rhetoric down, trying to keep them civil,” she said.
For seventh- and eighth-graders, the opinions of parents and other adults are still a driving force in forming political views.
“My family, they don’t really like Hillary because they think she should go to jail because of the emails,” Rhett Silbaugh said.
Aiden Vaught’s parents don’t really like either candidate, and “I don’t really like either of them, but I think I would choose the one that I like the best and that would be Trump,” he said.
Students also have been getting information about the election from social media, but some said social media and overall media coverage of the candidates has been “annoying” and “not on task.”
Most of Oliver’s students agreed that presidential debates got out of hand with personal attacks, and candidates didn’t take enough time to discuss important issues like education, the economy, race/religion, immigration and women’s rights.
“I think they’re desperate. They keep saying things to get people’s attention and get them to vote for them,” Samantha Smith said.
So who do they side with? At the beginning of a class discussion Nov. 1, all but two of Oliver’s students initially said they were voting for Trump.“I feel like my gut says he would actually get a lot of things done. He would do good for our country, but he does have racist views,” Ava Smith said.
“I think Hillary has a lot of votes because people want the first female president, but I think they should save the first female president for somebody who is actually going to be really good,” she said.
Silbaugh said he watched one of the debates and he noticed that Clinton took a seat and took a drink of water while Trump stood.
“I see Trump standing up and (he) doesn’t sit in a chair at all, and that tells me he’ll be ready for the presidency,” Silbaugh said.
Bryce was one of the two students who initially said she was voting for Clinton because she doesn’t like Trump.
“He never apologizes for any of the issues Hillary puts out and Hillary always does (apologize),” she said. “They both have their flaws, but so has every single president. There’s no one that’s going to be a perfect president. I think Hillary acknowledges her flaws and I think she has less big flaws, I guess.”
Kaylee Elkins initially said she supported Trump, but she and a few other students said their views might have changed after listening to their classmates express their opinions and reasons for them.
“I don’t like that he points out other people’s differences. And he needs to have a moment just for himself where he can think about, ‘Why am I calling people out whenever I have my own differences, too, and I do things wrong too?’
“I know I said I’m a Trump supporter, but I’m kind of leaning a little bit toward Hillary now that we’ve had this discussion,” Elkins said.
After the next president is elected, will the country be able to unite? These students believe it could be possible, but will take time.
“I think, honestly, it affects us long-term, because people will be like, ‘Well, obviously my vote didn’t help any.’ So then they might not vote. They’ll still be angry because they didn’t get what they wanted,” Aden Rice said.
“I think this is a dipping point for the usefulness of democracy, because the presidents keep getting worse each time — except for, like, Obama and a few others,” Vaught said.
“People are going to be angry. You can’t make everybody happy. It’s impossible,” Bailey Russell said.