About 90 students from the West Valley School District got a lesson in civility Friday from one of the district’s standout alumni: Justice Debra Stephens of the Washington Supreme Court.
Stephens, a Spokane native who has served on the high court since 2008, spoke at a daylong teaching workshop at Eastern Washington University, along with West Valley and EWU educators. The kids were bused in from elementary, middle and high schools in the district. The goal was to answer the question, “When is conflict productive and necessary?”
When working through a disagreement, Stephens said, it’s important to have rules of engagement – just like in a courtroom.
“One of the rules in my profession – and it’s such a good rule – is no foul language and no calling people names,” she told a group of middle schoolers.
To demonstrate the rule in action, she asked the kids if they preferred cats or dogs, and a few murmured in response.
“OK,” Stephens said, addressing one girl who had voiced a preference for felines. “I don’t want to dismiss you as a silly cat lover.
“We have personal biases, and what we like is very personal, and sometimes we can’t say why we like it.”
Tailoring her message for each age group, Stephens, who has two children of her own, implored students to seek out conflicting views, and respect those views even if they can’t agree.
“It’s important to expose yourself to different ideas … and get out of your echo chambers,” she told a group of high schoolers during a roundtable discussion.
Ashley Matthews, an enthusiastic senior from Spokane Valley High School, took Stephens’ advice to heart. Matthews said many people her age are “rude,” “mean” and “horrible” when interacting on social media. She called them “keyboard warriors.”
“I’m not losing any of my values, but I’m learning how to disagree with people without being rude,” Matthews said. “And that’s important in this day and age.”
The West Valley School District has held similar workshops for the past nine years, and Stephens has spoken at each one. She said she aims to address “a real dearth of education about civics in many of our schools.”
In addition to stints as a practicing attorney and appellate court judge, Stephens spent 12 years teaching state constitutional law at Gonzaga Law School. Occasionally during Friday’s lessons, she offered snippets of her legal philosophy.
“The interpretations (of the law) are every bit as important as the text itself,” she said, “because words aren’t precise.”
District spokeswoman Sue Shields said that at the last civics workshop, students cast mock votes for the 2016 presidential candidates. She said the exercise drew some controversy but prompted students to engage in politics in a respectful, meaningful way.
“We’re not teaching them what to think,” Shields said. “We’re teaching them what to think about.”