Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Over the course of this bruising election season, we’ve become used to the political rancor and personal attacks that pervade cable news networks and talk radio channels.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this vitriol occurred earlier this year when Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” during a debate over contraception.
The concept of civility in public discourse seemed all but forgotten.
However, some of Las Vegas’ brightest students gathered this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center to debate the issues of the day — and they did it with courtesy and respect.
The discussion topics were controversial: gay marriage, marijuana legalization, campaign-finance reform, mandated health care and education reform. Yet, despite the hot-button nature of these issues, cool heads prevailed.
Adults could learn a thing or two from these students.
“We came from all different parts of the district, but we agree on many of the issues — and it was good to see that we could agree to disagree,” one student said.
“I have hope for the future, that people can compromise,” another student chimed in.
“We discussed things so civilly and respectfully,” someone said. “Why can’t people in government do that?”
About 1,000 students from 52 high schools across the Las Vegas Valley participated Tuesday in the 56th annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum. As one of the largest and longest-running youth programs of its kind in the country, the Sun Youth Forum gives students an opportunity to share their views with peers and community leaders.
“The Sun Youth Forum was created so youth in Las Vegas would be listened to,” Sun Publisher and Editor Brian Greenspun told students during a lunch break. “Our job is to make sure that our generation — your parents — do listen to what you have to say.”
The first forum — created by then-Sun Publisher and Founder Hank Greenspun — was in 1956 and featured 96 students from five local high schools. Since then, the forum attracts hundreds of Las Vegas’ best students annually, said Brian Cram, director of the Greenspun Family Foundation, which sponsored the event.
“I’m always amazed at how smart they are,” said Cram, a former Clark County Schools superintendent. “They bring a sense of freshness in their solutions to some of our current problems.”
This year’s Youth Forum brought together 28 moderators, including Greenspun, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, former Nevada first lady Sandy Miller, Clark County School Board members, several UNLV administrators, business leaders and judges.
In recent years, many of the Youth Forum discussions focused on the global economic slump as students face graduation and their subsequent college and job prospects. Despite their optimism in light of improving economic indicators, many students said they still were hurting from the Great Recession.
In a random survey of 200 Youth Forum participants, nearly half said their family was affected by unemployment. About 15 percent of respondents said their homes had been foreclosed on.
The recession — as well as the rising cost of higher education — had most students worried about being able to afford college. Nearly all respondents — 96 percent — said they planned to apply for financial aid or scholarships to attend college.
“My biggest fear would be the lack of finances available for college,” said Arbor View High School junior Christopher Seebock, 18.
The lack of local job prospects concerned many students and seemed to be one of several factors contributing to Nevada’s brain drain. About 62 percent of survey respondents said they didn’t plan on staying in Nevada as an adult.
“I’m very excited to grow up, but I’m worried that when I get out of college, I won’t be able to find a qualified job to provide for me and a family,” said Centennial High School senior Haley Whalen, 17.
For some students, like Silverado High School senior Marquisha Santos, providing for a family is already a reality. However, the 17-year-old remains positive.
“I am 100 percent positive that I have a bright future,” she said. “Of course, I worry about being able to support myself and my son, however, waking up every day and knowing I have opportunities that others around the world do not have gives me hope that I will succeed.”
In addition to economic issues, Youth Forum participants gravitated toward social issues, such as legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage.
In one discussion group moderated by Greenspun, students discussed the merits of legalizing same-sex marriage, which was recently approved by voters in four states: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Some on the left hailed the election results as a historic turnaround that illustrated changing perceptions of gay marriage, especially among young voters.
Jana McLain, an 18-year-old Las Vegas Academy senior, said she supported same-sex marriage because partners would gain benefits, such as shared health care and visitation rights in the hospital. There also would be financial incentives for allowing gay marriage in Nevada, McLain argued.
“It would help us with tourism, since we have a lot of wedding chapels,” McLain said.
Other students, such as Jarrell Berrios, said marriage was a right that should be extended equally to same-sex couples.
“If our duty as a government is to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, our current policies directly infringe (same-sex couples’) right to liberty,” the 17-year-old Advanced Technologies Academy student said. “Same-sex marriage is victimless, but by denying it, we’re infringing on their liberties.”
Cimarron-Memorial High School student James Salls, 17, said he was worried where legalizing gay marriage would lead.
“Can someone marry a dog in the future? What about polygamy?” Salls asked. “Is there a line somewhere we shouldn’t cross?”
Greenspun asked students to raise their hands if they supported gay marriage. The majority of students did. However, asked if their parents supported gay marriage, the room was more mixed.
“There seems to be a big difference in what parents think and what you think,” Greenspun noted. “Why do you think there’s a generational difference?”
Mojave High School student Jarren Mulder, 17, offered an explanation: Today’s youths are more secular.
“Religion has less of an impact in our generation,” he said. “For our parents, religion played a bigger role.”
The discussion soon shifted to prostitution, which is legal in some rural Nevada counties but illegal in the state’s two largest counties: Clark and Washoe. With U.S. Sen. Harry Reid calling for a broad ban on prostitution, what do Las Vegas youths think about the world’s oldest profession?
East Career and Technical Academy senior Kurt Sweat, 18, argued in favor of legalizing prostitution, turning it into a larger industry that could be regulated to perhaps better safeguard against sexually transmitted diseases.
“It’s something that’s occurring right now (in Las Vegas),” Sweat said. “If we legalize it, we can regulate and control it.”
Legalization also has a financial benefit for Nevada, Foothill student Amanda Geraci said, adding that brothels may be safer than street prostitution.
“We can have income taxes on (prostitutes’) paychecks,” the 17-year-old said. “If there’s a legal way to do it, then they are more inclined to do it legally. It’s their choice (to prostitute), but we should find a safer way for them to do it.”
However, Basic High School student Jasmine Fernandez, 17, worried Nevada could be creating a “legal loophole” for sex trafficking if it legalized prostitution statewide.
Other students, such as Sunrise Mountain High School senior Brenda Martinez asked the group what kind of community Las Vegas would be if it legalized prostitution.
“I believe in morals,” the 18-year-old said. “(Prostitution) decreases the value of a person. You can’t sell your body for money.”
Down the hallway, students were talking about how to improve Nevada’s education system.
“How do we address the situation of dropouts?” asked Clark County Schools Deputy Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky. “What do we do as a district to help you? What can you do as a student to help us?”
Del Sol High School student Sara Danner, 17, said her school’s high dropout rates fell after it added a 20-minute “advisory” period to help struggling students. Raffling off televisions and game consoles as incentives to boost lagging attendance also helped, Danner said.
“That actively got kids to go (to school), Danner said. “It’s improved (our attendance).”
Some students said teachers could do a better job of engaging students.
“Everyone has their own learning style,” said East Career and Technical Academy senior Matthew Foreman, 17. “The main solution is to separate students who learn similarly into a group so everyone can learn.”
Other students advocated for a new teacher-evaluation system that gives better feedback to educators. Currently, a state council of teachers, administrators and other community leaders is drafting a final set of recommendations for a new teacher-evaluation system, to be released in December.
Silverado High School senior Mariah Weber, 17, said she wanted to give teachers “more leeway” in their curriculum. There’s too much directive from the top, she argued.
“Teachers don’t have any joy doing their jobs anymore,” Weber said. “It’s not fun and they’re losing enthusiasm. Let them do educational games. That way it’s still educational and fun.”
“If we can motivate teachers, we can have them motivate students and also earn benefits,” said Green Valley High School senior Isaac Wellish, 17.
Skorkowsky had another question for the students.
“Is it the teachers’ and the school’s responsibility for students to stay engaged in school?” he asked. “Where’s the responsibility?”
Basic High School senior Henry Cruz, 18, argued the onus was on the students.
“I had a bad chemistry teacher, but I took the opportunity to go in before school and after school to get the attention that I needed,” he said.
Whalen said some of the responsibility for student achievement falls on parents.
“We should be looking at the parents, but it’s a home issue, too,” she said. “My parents instilled in me that I can’t drop out. They need to be involved.”
Forum attendees got a break in the action with a lunchtime performance by dance group and Strip act Jabbawockeez.
Students whipped out their camera phones to capture the troupe rocking the stage. The room erupted into cheers when Jabbawockeez performed “Gangnam Style.”
“You guys are our future,” a member of the dance crew told the students over the speakers. “It’s a big deal that you do your job and make a difference. Learn something so you can pay it forward.”
After the act, Greenspun presented $1,000 college scholarships to four randomly selected students. Berkeley and Miller also presented their own college scholarships.
“We know life’s tough,” Greenspun said. “We wanted to help young people who want to go to college.”
UNLV — which had a heavy presence at the Sun Youth Forum — kicked in a matching program, giving $1,000 scholarships to Youth Forum scholars who decide to attend UNLV.
One scholarship winner — Desert Oasis High School senior Joseph Bennecke — said he planned to go to UNLV to major in physics.
“My parents can’t help me, so I have to (pay for college) on my own,” he said. “This money will help a lot.”
Another scholarship winner, Liberty High School senior Allessandra Rizo, said that while she appreciated the money, she was just grateful for the opportunity to attend the Youth Forum and share her opinions with community leaders.
“My favorite part was being able to hear everyone’s opinions and getting a new outlook on things,” she said.
School Board President Linda Young said she has enjoyed coming to the Youth Forum for the past several years to listen to students like Rizo. After all, students are her most important constituents, she said.
“Our students deserve our respect, appreciation and encouragement,” Young said after the forum. “They literally will be shaping our future. They’re to be valued for their input.”