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April 20, 2014

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Teens debate issues in 42nd SUn Youth Forum

There is no way to convince Valley High School senior Jeremy Hart to change his support for capital punishment, not after what he witnessed.

As a 13-year-old, Hart was present when an assailant armed with a knife killed his mother's fiance in their Las Vegas home. The assailant received a 25-year sentence with possible parole, but Hart thinks the man should be put to death.

"I would love to do it if I could," he said. "Right now he's just sitting in jail. When he comes out, how do we know he won't do it again? He says when he comes out he will come after me. It's a nightmare for me."

Hart and about 850 fellow Clark County high school students pulled no punches Wednesday when they participated in the 42nd annual Las Vegas SUN Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center. In forums moderated by community leaders, the students displayed candor and sharply disagreed on issues such as special education funding, homosexual parents, and free condom distribution in schools.

Most students who participated in a "law and crime" forum moderated by FBI Special Agent in Charge Bobby Siller of Las Vegas shared Hart's position on the death penalty.

"If you kill someone in an act of violence, I think you should be killed for it," said Hannah Meech-Burkestone, a Western High senior. "But if you have a family member who is a vegetable (and end their life support), I don't think you should be punished for that."

A few students said convicted murderers should be spared from the death penalty but rot in prison. But Anna Carpenter, a senior at Virgin Valley High in Mesquite, said she's tired of convicts who file endless appeals.

"When I think of capital punishment I think of predatory and serial killers," she said. "There are too many breaks in the system where people are walking free."

Siller found himself on the defensive when some students berated police for driving over the speed limit without appearing to be headed anywhere in particular.

"Police speed whenever they want," one girl said. "When we see them speed we think it's OK to speed."

That caused Siller to ponder aloud: "How do you know what they're doing? Law enforcement can speed if they do it for official reasons."

Another girl didn't buy that argument.

"I've seen a lot of police and ambulances turn on their lights just to get past a (traffic) light, and then turn them off," she said.

Students broached plenty of touchy subjects in a "teen topics" forum moderated by state Board of Education member, teacher and SUN columnist Bill Hanlon. When the subject turned to family life, some students had it great and others revealed their miserable predicaments.

One student summed it up by saying, "not everyone lives in a Brady Bunch family," a reference to the former television sitcom about a household with relatively trivial problems.

The fortunate included Tristan Catmull, a Cimarron-Memorial junior who praised her mother.

"Communication is a big deal in my family," Catmull said. "It starts with the parents opening up with the kids at an early age. When I came home from kindergarten my mother would ask me what I did at school. Now I tell her everything. My mom is my best friend."

Others such as Nathan Pulley, a Bonanza senior, have found themselves in the middle of divorced parents.

"You have to fulfill the role of the (departed) parent," Pulley said. "You have to learn to parent yourself."

One girl compared her family to "The Simpsons," the animated television program.

"My mother works long hours and my father has been without work so he gets grumpy," she said. "It gave me the motivation to do good, learning from their mistakes."

Allowing gay and lesbian couples to serve as parents caused sharp divisions. Some students said homosexuals were at least as caring as heterosexuals. Others argued that a child would become confused by having same-sex parents.

Teen suicide was another hot topic. Some students were candid about having contemplated suicide. Others had friends who took their own lives.

"I have had many friends who have either attempted suicide or succeeded," said Russell Martin, a Las Vegas High senior. "On a normal day if they have mannerisms that change, that could be an indication (of potential suicide), even if it seems for the better. I had a friend who was happy for two weeks, and then he killed himself."

Pulley said the people who need friends the most are those contemplating killing themselves. One girl said her friend was playing with a gun because she didn't have a boyfriend.

"I have a friend who is suicidal," another girl said. "She has scar marks on her wrist. I know she needs someone to talk to but sometimes she gets whiny, and it's hard to calm her down. I think, what if I don't talk to her? She might commit suicide."

In a "school daze" forum moderated by U.S. District Judge Philip Pro, students engaged in spirited debate over funding for special education. Clarke Walton, a Silverado senior, suggested there isn't enough return on the investment to increase spending in that area. That led to a quick rebuttal from Rancho senior Crystal Jamerson.

"It shouldn't be about money," she said.

"It shouldn't but it is," he countered.

Jamerson said that at her high school, "most of the kids in special ed are running around and picking up trash instead of (the school) teaching them. I don't think that's right."

But Clarke said that regardless of how much money is spent on special education, "there is only so much we can do for them."

Many students in this forum supported free distribution of condoms in school.

"A lot of people lose their virginity in high school," said Eldorado senior Leah Carbonaro. "People don't want tax dollars to pay for condoms but they already hand them out at free clinics. If it's your choice not to have sex, that's cool, but if you do, condoms should be there (at school).

"What's wrong with having them in the basket in the nurse's office?"

Another girl said abstinence should be stressed but conceded that students will continue having sex.

"They should make condoms available because they're going to do it whether they have them or not," she said.

It's a good thing no school counselors sat in on Pro's forum. Students had a field day on the topic of counseling.

"They're not doing their job but it's not their fault," Jamerson said. "It's the administration. All the counselors are doing is figuring out your schedules."

Carbonaro said they shouldn't be called counselors, "they should be called schedulers."

A few students said they were happy with their counselors, but they were in the minority. Some complained that there aren't enough counselors at their schools.

"My counselor at school hasn't helped me," one student said. "Every time I go to talk to her she blows me off."

In a "home in Nevada" forum moderated by Clark County Sheriff Jerry Keller, the students voted 37 to 16 against the proposed shipment of high-level nuclear waste to this state.

Racial issues such as affirmative action were tackled in a forum on "America." Students debated whether racial quotas perpetuate hate.

"Affirmative action is an insult to any race," said Clark High junior Erick Gremlich.

The students agreed that "at-risk" schools get less funding than their counterparts in wealthier neighborhoods. Some placed the blame on low parental involvement in poor schools, coupled with more outside donations in affluent areas.

Most students in the "around the world" forum moderated by Las Vegas attorney Jeff Eskin supported the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

Dan Diggins, a Basic High junior, said NAFTA is leading the United States to increase its emphasis on technological education.

"The blue-collar jobs are disappearing, but that's not necessarily a bad thing," he said.

But a girl whose parents came from Chihuahua, Mexico, raised doubts about the effectiveness of NAFTA in that country. She said the Mexican government will sit on the money, and none of it will go to the poor.

"It's like they're stuck in the Ice Age," she said.

Practically everyone in the room was so sick of the late Princess Diana they didn't want to discuss her. When Eskin asked why, one student yelled, "because she's dead!"

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., one of the senator's 1998 election challengers, ironically were placed next door to one another while leading separate forums. Reid moderated a "home in Nevada" forum, while Ensign tackled "teen topics."

Reid, a Youth Forum veteran, said he was impressed with the kindness expressed by the students.

"They favor legal immigration and oppose illegal immigration," Reid said. "They think growth is important and should continue.

"I go to elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, and I certainly learn more from them than from town hall meetings. The students are more honest. They lay it out for you."

Ensign, who also has participated in past forums, said he appreciated the format because under normal school conditions, "the kids are spoon-fed," he said.

"It's satisfying to see how kids think," Ensign said. "You can see their different backgrounds, depending on the issues. We had one kid who has a 1-year-old baby so she had life experiences she could share with other kids.

"It amazed me how many kids thought abstinence should be taught in school."

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