Students who are politically aware

Involvement in activist groups at schools suggests teenagers want to join the process

March 24, 2006|By SHELBY PRUCHA-MITCHELL AND CHRIS MERL | SHELBY PRUCHA-MITCHELL AND CHRIS MERL,SUN REPORTERS

While the younger generation is typically stereotyped as being politically unaware, some student organizations at county high schools would suggest otherwise.

"Our school is very diverse, and with a school like that it needs to be politically aware," said Allyson Gulihur, a senior at Long Reach High School who, like her peers, will have the opportunity to vote in a general election for the first time this fall. Gulihur is the vice president of Long Reach's Gay/Straight Alliance.

"Students seem to be becoming more politically savvy and politically active," said Dominic Cross, a senior and student body president at Oakland Mills High.

Of the 12 county public high schools, eight have active chapters of organizations designed to encourage political activity or activism. Young Democrats, Young Conservatives, Amnesty International and Gay/Straight Alliance are teen-run groups with the purpose of allowing for political growth. Along with exposure to an activist atmosphere, these organizations can help to foster beliefs and principles for the younger generation as they come of voting age.

The Mount Hebron Young Democrats Club is one of the most active of its kind in the county.

"The Young Democrats Club has played an active role in the community from 2003 to now, especially during the 2004 election," said senior Sarah Haq, the group's president.

"[Young Democrats] is a very good way to learn how politics work on a local level," said Laura Keay, vice president of the Mount Hebron Young Democrats.

In the past, the Young Democrats have held a mock election in the high school, volunteered to help Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' re-election campaign and demonstrated in the Mount Hebron community. This year, members took their activism to a new level, hosting a town hall meeting to raise teenagers' political awareness. The meeting's topic, education, was chosen so that students could participate and begin a lifelong interest in government and policy, Haq said.

River Hill High School has the only active Young Conservatives Club. While the club does not associate with or endorse any specific party, said teacher Troy Goodfellow, the sponsor, it is designed for students who associate themselves with conservative ideals. Goodfellow said the club, which was formed two months ago, has few members.

While these organizations are created specifically to promote political awareness, organizations such as Amnesty International encourage community and international activism while not favoring one political party.

Senior Maddy Finucane is president of Wilde Lake's Student Educated Action, an Amnesty International-affiliated organization. At each meeting, Finucane leads the club in a discussion about groups in need of human rights aid. The organization's main objective is to educate students about wrongfully imprisoned protesters, persecuted religious practitioners and refuges seeking asylum.

"I think as teenagers, education is the most important thing," Finucane said.

Said club sponsor Rena Bezilla: "These students are more community-minded than ever. This group is less politically active [than my generation], but they do a lot more."

This year, Amnesty International chapters combined forces to help gain the release of a southern Vietnam priest in prison for speaking out against the government on human rights issues. Through letter writing, petitions and setting up tables at events to gain membership and further its cause, Amnesty was able to save the priest from possible death, Bezilla said.

Joining Wilde Lake's effort was Long Reach's chapter of Amnesty International, headed by senior Allen Tran. In his second year with Amnesty, Tran describes the club as "noble and honorable."

He said that being a member of Amnesty will play a role in how he votes this fall.

"After Amnesty, you realize what is going on in the world," said Tran, who feels that candidates should put people first, over money.

Glenelg High School's chapter of Straight and Gay Alliance is no less active. The club's purpose is "education for the whole school," said sponsor Susan Garner.

The group has conducted a "ribbon campaign" on National Coming Out Day to stand up against hatred, Garner said. The club also participates in demonstrations, including the Day of Silence, when students and staff do not speak for a day to protest the silencing experienced by the gay student population.

While they are different in name, Long Reach's Gay/Straight Alliance shares a common goal in raising awareness about the gay student population in their school. Gulihur said Long Reach's chapter also plans to "participate in the Day of Silence and hopefully inform the rest of the school about it so that others can participate."

Gulihur has been a member of Long Reach's Gay/Straight Alliance since its founding two years ago.

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