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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Students take congressional candidates to task: Here are the teenagers who organized the North Central High School Fifth congressional debate

Fifth Congressional District candidates sit at desks at the congressional debate at the North Central High School Auditorium on June 4. The debate was moderated by North Central student Daisy Tuter, Spokesman-Review city hall reporter Emry Dinman and Inlander staff writer Nate Sanford, sitting center stage.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

North Central High School sophomore Daisy Tuter is too young to vote, but last week she had a role that could help adults when they select a candidate to represent Eastern Washington in Congress.

“Rules of the debate said the candidates had to listen to the moderator. And at that point, I was the one with the mic in front of me. I was the one who would look a candidate in the eye, shake their hand and tell them that their time is up,” said the 16-year-old.

Tuter was one of a half-dozen students at the high school who organized a debate among the nine leading candidates of both parties in this year’s open congressional race. With teacher oversight, high school students were in charge of organizing the debate, developing the questions, getting the word out and everything that goes into a major political debate.

North Central social studies department Chair Matt Johnson said all the students involved were “professional to a fault” and “mature beyond their years” while navigating the adult intricacies of a high-stakes political race, especially because planning for the debate only began in April.

“We want to give our kids the opportunity to connect with social studies, because kids sometimes can’t see the connect from the classroom content to what’s happening in the real world,” Johnson said.

Junior Anya Harmon was one of three timekeepers at the debate – tasked with raising signs letting candidates know they are out of time. Before getting involved with the congressional debate, Harmon had “absolutely no” knowledge or experience with politics. But she thinks her role will make her a more engaged voter once she is old enough.

“Researching the candidates and hearing them talk in person were very different, because they have their views that they post online. But it’s easier to say things online than explain them in person,” Harmon said.

Streamed live with an audience of more than 400 community members, the debate had questions culled from the student body and relevant to students’ experiences. Topics included a ban on the social media app TikTok, gun control, the 2020 election, immigration, the Israel-Hamas war and climate change.

Johnson was particularly struck by the question on TikTok, which is at risk of being banned in the United States if it is not sold to an entity free of influence from the Chinese government.

“What’s important to them isn’t necessarily important to me or the 75-year-old person who is the biggest voting bloc,” Johnson said. “The TikTok question was fantastic. Because I hear kids talking about TikTok all the time, and this legislation affects them very directly.”

North Central is not the only school to host student-centered political debates. Graduating Central Valley senior Lucy He moderated a May debate of candidates for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Not enough attention is paid to young people in political elections, He said – even for offices that directly affect students such as the state superintendent race.

“I think that’s a big part of the reason why young people don’t feel engaged in the local communities – because I don’t think there are enough student-driven conversations around local events,” He said.

Even if the questions at the congressional debate were geared toward students, many of the answers are “not exactly what young people would want to hear,” Harmon said.

“We’re not their primary audience, even though we think we should be. I think a lot of them might have been speaking to the adults that were there instead of the students,” she said.

Still, Harmon said all the candidates were “very civil” and willing to speak to all the student organizers individually. The same could not be said for some of the adults in the audience who ignored admonitions to hold their applause and refrain from outbursts – such as loud guffaws heard when some candidates said Joe Biden was legitimately elected president in 2020.

“I thought it was kind of funny that the majority of the people that were having reactions and not doing what they were told were the adults and not the kids,” said timekeeper Jordyn Allen, a junior.

Juniors Atasha Velarde and Dylan Gagaoin called the audience outbursts “very immature.”

“We did have to say several times to the audience to be civil. You know, this is a high school. We are trying to stay on time and get through as many questions as possible,” Tutor said.

The debate was sponsored by The Spokesman-Review, Inlander and Spokane Public Radio.

Tuter got the chance to wield her power as a moderator late in the debate during a question asking the candidates to list specific examples about how they would tackle the climate crisis.

Republican candidate Rene Holaday was the only person on stage to deny any change to the climate was occurring – calling the climate crisis a “construct of the United Nations.” As Holaday referenced a book she had written on the international diplomatic organization, the high school sophomore interrupted and told the candidate to get back on topic.

“Well, what would I do to combat bigfoot and unicorns?” Holaday retorted sarcastically to the teenager. “Geez. Maybe just carry on like I live my life every day.”

Recalling the exchange, Tuter she felt compelled to push back.

“It states in the rules that if a moderator thinks that the candidate is going off topic, they can interrupt the candidate. (Holaday) was talking about a book she wrote. That was not on topic at all,” Tuter said.

According to Johnson, the students hope to form a more organized Civic Engagement Club to host more debates, including one next fall between the two vote-getters in the Fifth Congressional District primary.