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Election stories from four Allegheny County high schools

High school students participating in “Journalists Wanted!” this fall, an Allegheny Intermediate United gifted and talented apprenticeship taught by Point Park journalism professor emeritus Helen Fallon, took on an election reporting assignment.  The students wrote stories about issues concerning their fellow students in this presidential election year that resonate with them.  They asked them what they are concerned about and want to see happen, even if they aren’t eligible to vote on Nov. 3.

The stories also included whether the election is the subject of class discussions, organizations and groups at their high schools. The students interviewed teachers, too, and described what they saw at their schools – students wearing T-shirts, hats, buttons in support of a candidate, arguing about the election, working in support of candidates – if they are attending classes as part of a hybrid learning environment in these COVID times. The virtual classroom environment was explored as well.

 

Avonworth High School students see and experience the country’s divide

By Miracle Bynum

Senior, Avonworth High School

All anyone can talk about these days is the presidential election. The country has become more divided over the last few years. Right now, all can see the great divide in political views.

This election is doing just that. This is a time when American citizens should be coming together to exercise their right to vote; however, this election has left American citizens pitted against one another.

If someone is in support of President Trump, people are angry and vice versa with former Vice President Joe Biden. Nothing seems to satisfy anyone these days. America is at a loss, and so many are experiencing absolutes. Either they love Trump and hate Biden, love Biden and hate Trump, or they just don’t like either of them.

At Avonworth High School, this sense of a divide is clear as day. Students observe people walking around in Trump hats, masks and shirts. In high school, there is such a standard to be like everyone else. A junior here at Avonworth wished to remain anonymous as he shared his experiences. He tried to explain that he does believe some of the football players support Trump, while others don’t but say they do. They’re so afraid of not being like their peers that they just go along with it, meaning not everyone who openly supports Trump is actually in support of him.

Alongside this, there are also people who just do not care at all. In high school it is not the most important thing, but when it comes to adults that can definitely be a problem. Valeria Vazques, a senior at Avonworth, said, “I feel like some people really just don’t care, and some are just settling for Biden because he’s the lesser of two evils.”

The election and politics are really only discussed in history classes. Therefore, a lot of students really may not be as educated in politics and policies as they need to be to express an informed opinion.

A senior at Avonworth can either take College in High School American Politics/AP Government or Problems of Democracy. Both courses deal greatly with politics and what’s happening currently. John Aguiar, a social studies teacher, expressed the need for politics to be taught in schools. He said, “The bottom line is that elections have consequences, and this is even more true today! For example, we no longer see as much of an overlapping Venn diagram when looking at the shared core values of our two main parties as they drift farther apart from one another. This means it is more important than ever to vote and have your voice be heard.  It is your civic duty as an American to stay up on the issues, to study the candidates’ platforms and to cast your ballot on Election Day.”

The school wants to educate seniors because some now are eligible to vote like Jackson Southern. Southern said, “I don’t love Trump, but he’s the better candidate in my opinion. My primary concern is the economy and the conditions in which I believe would be beneficial towards my future after college. There’s no denying that President Trump has done great things for the economy, and I’m very worried if Biden gets elected all of the economy would suffer greatly.”

Jackson wants to own his own business, and he is afraid of being taxed at such a high rate.

Other seniors interviewed said their biggest concerns would be the outcome of the election and the possible backlash.

Keyaira Cameron said, “I don’t think we will find out who won the election by November 3rd, and whoever doesn’t win will call it fraud, therefore delaying the results of the election.”

Many news sources have quoted Trump saying he would not resign peacefully. These sources also have many quotes and references of the president calling mail-in voting fraud, and that if he loses it would be also because of that fraud.

Senior Timmy Eng said, “(he is) concerned that no matter who wins there will still be people who will be angry. If Trump wins, there will be a lot of people who protest.”

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Thomas Jefferson High School students paying close attention to this election

By Caraline Sommer

Freshman, Thomas Jefferson High School

The crisp, cool autumn breeze ruffled the hair of students sauntering through the glass front doors of the school. October leaves floated down to brush against political signs lining the entrance to the parking lot, casting a kaleidoscope of reds and yellows upon the cars that showcased bumper stickers in favor of one of two different candidates.

One teenager who raced across the parking lot dressed head-to-toe in merchandise promoting one of the candidates could easily be seen even from the highest floor of the new and sprawling building.

It is clear that not only has fall reached Thomas Jefferson High School but also election season. The upcoming election between incumbent Republican President Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is one of great anticipation for many American citizens, considering the great turmoil in the current state of the country regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, race relations and police brutality.

Thomas Jefferson, as well as the entire West Jefferson Hills School District, has been a forefront for issues like these. The high school closed on March 13 for coronavirus precautions with all the district’s schools and did not reopen until Aug. 31. It implemented a hybrid schedule, with half of the student body attending Mondays and Thursdays, and the other half attending Tuesdays and Fridays. The two groups rotate Wednesdays. Each student and teacher must wear a mask.

Many students have also participated in local protests against police brutality, with some students walking out of class on Sept. 25 in protest of racially targeted comments posted on Facebook by school board director Jill Bertini. “We are lucky to have such vocal students looking to make a difference,” said one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. As of now, the issue against Bertini remains unresolved.

Because Pennsylvania is a swing state, the divide caused by the Nov. 3 election is almost palpable. According to some students within the West Jefferson Hills School District, the difficult conversations had about the election among peers have become an everyday commonplace. “I don’t think that many adults realize how much we are paying attention,” said one student, who attended the protest against Bertini and asked to remain anonymous. “We overall are a very opinionated, energetic generation that is eager to make a change. Even though many of us cannot vote yet, we are encouraging many of our parents, family members and neighbors to use their voice and make a difference by voting.”

This is incredibly important and has been emphasized in election coverage, considering that roughly only 58% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 presidential election. “I went door to door the other day to make sure people were eligible to vote,” Ava Snee, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School, said. “Every parent and guardian I spoke to was already registered!”

Not only are high school students interested, but also middle school students in the district. “My friends and I have been talking a lot about the debates and protests. Everyone I know has watched the presidential and vice-presidential debates.  We’re all really interested in what happens later this fall,” said Julia Sommer, a sixth-grade student.

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Fox Chapel students worry about close election, country’s divisions

By Izabella Stern

Junior, Fox Chapel Area High School

The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the most memorable. Starting with wildfires spreading across Australia, the world continues to experience the international coronavirus pandemic, and the United States is facing the approaching presidential election.

The presence of young voters in this election is especially strong this year. Their vote is a young eye on the events taking place in the world today, and for them to have a possible say in the outcome of this election is key. Even if they cannot vote, and/or are underage, these voices can have a major impact on the results of this election.

With the strong foothold of social media in this election, the presence of young voters is larger than ever this year. Between the ages 18-21, the polls show that more than 1.2 million young voters have already cast votes in 39 states in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, young voters ages 18-34 take up 22% of the votes in the state, falling just behind ages 35-54. In Allegheny County, young voters have shown a huge increase in this year’s election.

Three classmates at Fox Chapel Area High School discussed their point of view on the circumstances regarding young voters in this year’s election. One junior, Jessica Balk, explained how she is “concerned that since it will be a close election, people might try to fight the results and resort to violence in order to be heard.” Balk also stated that she “would like to see the country unite as one and to be at peace with the ultimate result.”

As far as the topic of the election being brought up in school, Balk says that no discussion of this particular topic has been brought up in any form.

Junior Nabeela Islam expressed her concerns regarding the election. “I’m most concerned with the exponential growth in division in the United States,” she said. “With parties on both sides, there is such a wide gap of visions and perspective that have begun to show a gradual deterioration in America.”

“I hope to see that this election is brought about peacefully and fairly that follows the rules and morals of America’s democracy,” said Islam.

In regards to election discussions, “the election itself has not been brought up in any of my classes or in school,” said Islam.

Nicole Trasatti, a junior, also has concerns about the election. “People could possibly release anger in forms that might enact violence onto a person or persons,” she said.

“(I would like) for people in America to realize how much more we as a whole can accomplish, rather than split into opposing, hate-driven sides,” Trasatti said. “The election is not brought up at all in school, but it should be discussed because it is a topic that is very important to our futures and lives, even though we cannot vote.”

Overall, all three students amplified the same idea: They are worried about the country as a whole, and the topic itself is not brought up enough in school or discussions.

AP U.S. History teacher at Fox Chapel High School Eric Norberg offered his view of this year’s election. When asked about why it is important to discuss the upcoming election, he said, “I think it is important to discuss any historical event, especially the election, so students understand the process and help them become informed of the world around them and the civic responsibilities they have as they move into adulthood. I think it’s really important even if you don’t talk about the issues or have a debate, just talking about the process, why we vote, when we vote, how we vote, all of that is important.”

Norberg explained what students can learn from this election. “The 2020 election in particular, the lesson learned is that there has been a really big push to encourage voting, and because it is so divisive, which can be ugly, [it] energizes people to care,” he said. “People that might ordinarily not pay attention to the election are now paying attention for whatever reason. Sometimes it just takes a little fire in your belly to awaken the American spirit. The support of politics and voting flows in our history, and I think sometimes you need these issues to get people engaged again. I don’t love the way it has happened, but I think the concept, in the end, is good for people, young, old, rural, urban, emphasis on the fact that it has energized a younger population of voters across the country.”

He has not noticed any accessories or clothing in support of a candidate or any conversations at Fox Chapel. “I’ve seen very little, which is surprising, and I think that it’s because it is such a divisive election,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people afraid, students, teachers. I’m more reserved in how I would possibly discuss the current situation, which is not a bad thing but definitely strange.”

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Young Voters in Mt. Lebanon normalizing political discussion

By Amy Tan

Sophomore, Mt. Lebanon High School

“How is the discussion going over here?” The Zoom breakout room is silent. Nothing surprising there, but this silence is more awkward than normal. The air is thick with unspoken words and tension.

Peter DiNardo, AP Government and civics teacher at Mt. Lebanon High School, is well aware of the reason why. The discussion topic is pertaining to the presidential debate that his students were required to watch for homework the night before. “AP Gov students can usually talk for an entire class period among themselves,” he says. “But it’s different when it comes to modern-day politics, especially since it’s the beginning of the school year. There’s a stigma attached to discussing politics with your peers. It’s a touchy subject, and no one wants to make the first move.”

Mr. DiNardo has grown familiar with this stigma with his numerous years of experience, and in fact, the stigma is a huge reason why he encourages students to discuss politics in class. Popular culture has made kids so wary of discussing topics that affect them in their daily lives, but DiNardo works to change that by incorporating politics, discussion, and the upcoming election in both his online and in-person curriculum.

However, DiNardo may only be one of the few teachers who are brave enough to do so. Sophomores Misty Fan and Janet Montgomery have noticed how reluctant the staff is to comment on political issues. “The school should be a politically unbiased environment,” Fan admits. “But sometimes, their silence is too much. They’re so afraid to spark controversy that they don’t even speak on matters such as Black Lives Matter and Pride, which is relevant to so many students.”

Whether or not schools should comment on human rights movements in politics is still a question that many grapple with today. Montgomery believes that the way the school decides to approach the subject of politics is going to heavily affect how students develop as human beings. “I think it is absolutely critical to have discussions about politics, especially starting young, because open-mindedness and trying to foster a world that is more empathetic starts with young children and must be nurtured,” said Montgomery. “Especially in this year’s election.”

Montgomery is not alone in thinking this year’s election may be different. Fifteen-year-old Anastasia Cross’ Instagram stories have constantly been flooded with posts and paragraphs. Cross is also a sophomore at Mt. Lebanon, and social media activism has become a daily routine for her. Since the wake of the BLM movement, many young people like Cross have gotten into the world of social media activism. Whether it be signing petitions or educating others on current events, young people, even those who cannot vote, are getting more involved than ever before.

Outside of the classroom, the stigma of politics DiNardo has described seems to have taken a backseat. Why now? “This year, it’s more than just politics,” said Montgomery. “It’s a fight for the principles of humanity; it is a desperate final attempt to restore uniquely human values in a government that holds the highest order of power over us, the people.”

Among Mt. Lebanon students, talk and debate about politics have skyrocketed, both over social media and in person. What once was a carefully avoided topic both in and out of school has become an everyday occurrence, especially for young people and POC.

Fan, who is of Asian descent, constantly stays up to date on political news and urges her classmates to do so as well. “Right now, not choosing to pay attention to politics is a privileged thing to do,” she says. “Many people’s rights, my own included, are currently at stake, and it can be invalidating when some people have the privilege to ‘not pay attention to politics’ and choose to stay silent.”

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