Making Democracy Work: Kings Park High school students get hands-on debate training

Making Democracy Work: Kings Park High school students get hands-on debate training

By Lisa Scott

The League of Women Voters (LWV) has a longstanding non-partisan role in organizing, managing and moderating candidate debates in Suffolk County. On Oct. 21 we expanded that role by creating an alliance with the Kings Park Central School District (KPCSD) for a Suffolk County Executive debate.

In the summer we were given permission to use Kings Park High School (KPHS) auditorium, chosen for  its convenient location near the Sunken Meadow Parkway, thus appealing to both Smithtown and Huntington township voters. As the campaigns heated up in late September, LWV engaged with KPCSD Superintendent of Schools Dr. Timothy Eagen, who was most enthusiastic about establishing a true partnership between LWV and KPHS. Dr. Karen Lessler, KPHS Assistant Principal and Jack Bishop, KPHS Student Council Advisor, immediately followed up with LWV and a plan was developed that was innovative and educational for the school and the community. 

With LWV guidance on debate structure and rules, KPHS students in the National Honor Society and the Student Council worked diligently to organize the program and materials for the night of the debate. They spread word about the debate to the greater Kings Park community (including parents) and organizations, and letters were sent to local elected officials inviting them to be honored guests at the debate. They collaborated on banners both for the candidate dais as well as a welcome banner in the KPHS lobby. They created informative name cards for each of the candidates, as well as a program for all attendees with debate rules, candidate names, and details of all students speakers/topics. They also developed questions for the candidates (on index cards) which dealt with issues of importance to students. 

On the night of the debate, the students welcomed over 300 attendees. They introduced administrators, spoke about the importance of voting and read each candidate’s biography. Other students mixed with the attendees prior to the debate in the lobby, giving out programs and question cards, which were also distributed and collected in the auditorium. 

The debate itself was videotaped by Kings Park Productions, and is posted on the LWV website, www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org on the events page. Local media were present and did extensive reporting the following day. Questions asked of candidates Bellone, Fischer and Kennedy during the two hour debate covered many issues including young peoples’ challenges in finding jobs and affordable housing, vaping and the opioid crisis, school safety, the environment, especially water issues and creating more vibrant sustainable downtowns. 

A week after the debate, LWV members met with about 15 students who were involved in the debate to “de-brief.” Most students admitted that they didn’t really know much about the office, the candidates, or debates in general. Only a few considered themselves up to date on current issues or “political.” A few spoke about the importance of getting news from legitimate sources. 

Interestingly, the students were surprised that so few people showed up in a county with  1.5 million people. They also commented on how the candidates “interacted with each other” and that the “candidates didn’t directly answer the questions.” When asked whether they were surprised by the results of the election, they said no.

The KPHS students were committed to involving students from all grades so that there would be continuity. They looked forward to future debates, and thanked KPHS for their “excellent support.” It takes a village — actually a school district — to set an example of youth empowerment and engagement. 

Lisa Scott is president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit http://lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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