Junior State of America students win awards for speaking their minds

November 1, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Jake Barokas, a Skyline High School sophomore, takes to the podium during a regional Junior State of America debate at O’Dea High School. Contributed

A simple description would state the Issaquah School District’s Junior State of America groups are debate teams.

While technically accurate, such an explanation doesn’t seem to convey the whole story.

For the Skyline High School JSA, past debate or discussion topics have included the legalization of marijuana and prostitution. JSA’s Iman Baghai, 16, said one discussion that got more than a little attention was about the worth of Skyline’s student government.

“We will take chances,” said Baghai, a member of the Issaquah High School JSA. While he holds other positions, he is the local JSA director of publicity.

Skyline group members said the Associated Student Body debate was stopped a few times — by students — just to make sure things stayed reasonable.

“The ASB debate did get lots of attention,” Skyline’s JSA faculty advisor Sarah Rainwater said, adding that a debate on the worthiness of Skyline as a high school was “a hard one to hear.”

“One student just wailed on the school,” Rainwater said.

She seems proud of the fact she has little to do with the running of JSA, which touts itself as the largest student-run organization in the country.

“I really don’t do anything,” Rainwater said. “It’s pretty amazing actually.”

Indeed, at a recent meeting of the Skyline JSA, there wasn’t any faculty in sight. And members said that is obviously part of the attraction, that students feel free to speak their minds and lead themselves.

“Kids can speak up,” Baghai said. “Adults don’t dominate.”

On the Web

Learn more about Skyline High School’s Junior State of America program at www.shsjsa.weebly.com.

At the same time, Baghai and others said the underlying purpose of JSA is to fight student apathy regarding real issues, whether those issues are unfolding inside or outside the schools. Clearly, though, debating and speaking do play a big role.

At a recent regional event at Seattle’s O’Dea High School, the Issaquah district JSA brought home five of the six gavels, or best speaker awards, available. A winner himself, Baghai said the regional theme was the “Towers of Terror: Remember 9/11.”

Specific topics included various questions: Should the Patriot Act be repealed? Does the U.S. have a moral obligation to promote democracy in the Middle East?

The local winners included four Skyline students along with Baghai. In the past, the Skyline group has won various awards, including the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Year in 2009. They took second place in that category last year.

“It’s all about fighting political apathy,” said Skyline High School’s Lexi Boyer, 16, another recent gavel winner.

Also a winner at O’Dea, Skyline JSA President Karsten Bell, 17, said the students largely are self-coached in the intricacies of debating and public speaking. Bell said he become involved because he loves talking and always has enjoyed arguing with people about issues.

“It has a theatrical aspect,” added Cassidy Boucher, 16, of Skyline. “It has the risk of putting yourself out there.”

“Our overall goal is to have a safe environment and keep an open mind,” said Victoria Snitsar, 14.

Several members said JSA teaches respect of opinions different from your own.

The Skyline group meets weekly on Fridays. Bell and others said a typical session involves the discussion of some topic along with debate or public speaking training.

“I’ve personally learned a lot,” Bell said.

He said one recent meeting had at least 30 student speakers.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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