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September 21, 2014

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Hundreds of students, dozens of controversial issues and one enduring quality: Mutual respect

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Steve Marcus

Jalen Jones, right, of Desert Pines High School, listens to a student discussion on international issues during the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

57th Annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum

Student Giovanny Vasquez of Western High School dances on stage during a lunch break at the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum in the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. Launch slideshow »

With the rise of cable news networks and talk-radio shows, we’ve become accustomed to the political grandstanding and attacks that seem to pass for public discourse these days.

Civility and compromise — values that helped found this country — seem all but forgotten.

That became apparent last month, when congressional gridlock led to a government shutdown that furloughed more than 800,000 federal employees and cost the U.S. economy as much as $6 billion — all because 535 congressional leaders failed to come to an agreement.

Imagine, then, what happened this week when nearly 1,000 Las Vegas high school students gathered at the 57th annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum to discuss hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control.

It was not the chaos you might have expected.

Instead of displaying vitriol and rancor, these students debated one another with courtesy and respect. Speakers weren’t interrupted, let alone shouted down. Thoughtful ideas were presented and then countered with rebuttals that were cordial and on-point.

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Chanell Westbrooks, left, and Ellamaze Velasquez, both of Arbor View High School, wait to join a discussion during the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

Adults could learn a lesson or two from these students.

Founded in 1955 by Sun founder and then-publisher Hank Greenspun, the Sun Youth Forum gives local teenagers an opportunity to share their opinions with their peers and community leaders.

“This forum was founded on the belief that kids have something to contribute to our public dialogue,” Sun Publisher and Editor Brian Greenspun said. “But too often, what they say falls on deaf ears. We strive to make sure that doesn’t happen in Las Vegas.”

Sponsored by the Greenspun Family Foundation in cooperation with the Clark County School District, the Sun Youth Forum is one of the largest and longest-running programs of its kind in the country.

The first forum was in 1956 and featured 96 students from five high schools. This year, the forum attracted about 950 juniors and seniors from 51 Las Vegas public and private schools.

“It shows that a good idea can last forever,” said Brian Cram, director of the Greenspun Family Foundation and former Clark County superintendent. “These students’ opinions are important. At this age, we need to treat them as adults — not kids.”

• • •

This year’s Youth Forum brought together 28 moderators, including Greenspun, former Nevada first lady Sandy Miller, Clark County School Board members, UNLV administrators, business leaders, journalists and judges.

In recent years, many of the Youth Forum discussions focused on Nevada’s economy as students face graduation and life after high school. Despite their optimism in light of improving economic indicators, many students said they still were hurting from the Great Recession.

In an unscientific survey of 200 Youth Forum participants, nearly half said their family was affected by unemployment. About 15 percent of respondents said their family had been through a home foreclosure.

The recession — as well as the rising cost of tuition — had many students worried about being able to afford college. Nearly all respondents — 99 percent — said they planned to apply for financial aid or scholarships to finance their higher education.

“What worries me is that I won’t have the money to go to the college I want to attend,” said Karissa Cabalfin, 16, an Arbor View High School junior. “I’m hopeful because I know there are scholarships and I’m very studious.”

Rancho High School senior Darje Martin echoed her peers’ comments.

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Brian Greenspun, publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun, moderates a discussion during the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

“I am worried about being in debt after college,” said Martin, 17. “My goal is to work a lot so I’m not in debt.”

Most students said they also were worried about their job prospects after high school and college. The majority of students — 65 percent — said they didn’t plan to live in Nevada as an adult, some citing a lack of job opportunities.

“With the job market constantly shifting, I don’t know whether my course of study will allow me to work and contribute to society,” said Sierra Vista High School senior Denise Hernandez, 18. “Hopefully, the job market picks up and I won’t have to go to extreme lengths to pursue a living.”

Despite the economic challenges facing youths today, most students, such as Bishop Gorman High School senior Megan Gray, 18, said they are optimistic about their future.

“Although I worry about finding a job that I love and is stable, I am very hopeful because my generation and I are the future and we get to decide,” she said.

• • •

Although adult moderators are present, the Youth Forum lets students direct their discussions. In light of recent events, some of the most heated conversations turned to the gun debate.

Students in Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky’s room immediately began tackling a difficult question: Should the School District allow teachers with concealed weapons permits to bring their guns on campus?

This debate ignited nationally last December with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting but was rekindled last month when a 12-year-old boy opened fire at a Sparks Middle School yard, killing a teacher and injuring two students before committing suicide.

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Darrell Sherrod, also know as DJ Twin, provides musical entertainment during a lunch break at the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum in the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

“It’s a polarizing topic,” Skorkowsky told his students. “What is going to make our schools safer and how can we improve our security measures without changing the concept of school?”

West Career and Technical Academy senior Madison Santoli, 17, argued teachers with proper training could deter school shooters and stop mass shooting at schools.

“If even one teacher had the training and a concealed weapons permit, that would be an effective way to prevent these things from happening,” she said.

Chaparral High School senior Cassandra Clark, 18, disagreed but stated her rebuttal with respect. She and other students pointed out there were trained school police officers stationed at some schools and urged prevention efforts such as mental health counseling.

“It’s sad we have to ask this question — it’s upsetting to me,” Clark said. “It’s like we’re trying to solve the problem of gun violence with more guns.”

Students considered other solutions, such as allowing teachers to carry tasers and pepper spray and installing metal detectors at schools. They looked at the pros and cons of each option, weighing costs of training and the potential for firearms accidents and broaches in civil liberties.

“Do you want to be frisked for five minutes every morning?” Desert Oasis High School senior Neil Aiad, 16, asked the group. “Instead, I think we should be talking to students about bullying.”

• • •

Down the hallway in Greenspun’s room, students debated allowing gay marriage in Nevada.

A show of hands found the majority of students favored allowing gays to marry. Some students voiced disapproval, though, arguing civil unions with all the economic benefits of marriage should suffice.

“I don’t begrudge people who are gay, but I don’t believe in (gay marriage) morally,” said Joseph Cheung, 17, a senior at Advanced Technologies Academy. “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. I think the issue should be more about acceptance and economic benefits.”

Others were adamant that gay marriage should be legal in Nevada. Some national polls show the majority of young adults lean in favor of gay marriage.

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Jibrael Bushongo, left, of Arbor View High School, and Daniel Maloney of Del Sol, listen to a discussion during the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

“People can be so closed-minded about this,” said Danielle Jimenez, 17, a senior at Spring Valley High School. “People are born that way — it can’t be changed. By not letting them get married, we’re not accepting them.”

Durango High School senior Ammir Aziz asked if anyone in the room was gay. He said he wanted to hear their opinion.

No one raised a hand.

Greenspun, who peppered students with probing questions, responded there may be someone in their group who identifies as gay but has chosen not to come out.

“Most people are comfortable saying they’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim,” Greenspun said. “The fact that they’re not comfortable answering the question tells you a whole lot about our society today.”

• • •

Despite the seriousness of the forum discussions, students were able to sneak in some kid-friendly fun into their day.

Recycled Percussion treated forum attendees to a lunchtime performance. As the musical group drummed away on ladders and makeshift drums, students whipped out their cellphone cameras and cheered wildly. Some students took to dancing on the stage afterward.

After the performance, Greenspun presented $1,000 scholarships to three students, chosen at random from the audience. A fourth student will be chosen later this year at a luncheon for students sharing their opinions in newspaper articles and TV interviews airing in a couple of months.

Las Vegas Academy senior Shannon Sneade, 17, was one of the scholarship winners this year. The school newspaper editor and president of the school’s social “Cheese Club” said she hoped to major in journalism at Pepperdine University or Northwestern University.

“I really appreciate this scholarship because it means I can further my education,” Sneade said. “It’s a nice reward for participating in the Youth Forum.”

Another scholarship winner, Taeg Williams, said that he appreciates the scholarship and is grateful for the opportunity to attend the Youth Forum and share his opinions with community leaders.

“I just enjoy that we kids have a voice that moderators listen to,” Williams said. “It’s so unique.”

Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards said she had enjoyed coming to the Youth Forum for the past several years to listen to students like Williams. After all, these students represent the future of Las Vegas, she said.

“The kids are so engaging and so bright,” Edwards said, scanning her room full of well-dressed and articulate students. “You can see who our future is right here.”

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