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A Lesson Crafted By Controversy
Students Weigh In on President's Plight

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 1998; Page A12

At precisely 1:15 p.m., with the jangle of the class bell and the clunk of backpacks on the parquet floor, the democratic forum of Room 108 opened with a vengeance. Hands shot up. Thoughts were scribbled frantically on page corners. The air became warm with impassioned debate.

Aristotle and Plato were to been have the subject of the class on Democratic Thought at Kensington's Academy of the Holy Cross girls high school Wednesday, but events had pushed the superheated spotlight to President Clinton.

An unfortunate victim, argued some of the 17- and 18-year-old seniors. A rank scoundrel, contended others. Isn't his privacy sacred? asked a few. How could he do this in the White House? Why doesn't he just explain everything?

As adults across the country have been seized with the crisis in the Clinton White House, many of the nation's schoolchildren have been forced, with some agitation, to wrestle with the details of the presidential predicament.

From high school to elementary school, experts say, students are trying to cope with a complex story that is loaded with questions of law, morality, politics and sex.

Children as young as third-graders are likely to be aware. "Any intelligent 8- or 9-year-old" knows, said Leon Rosenberg, director of the Children's Mental Health Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. "It's impossible for them to miss it."

Indeed, Jim Ritter, a seventh-grade history teacher at Bethesda's Westland Middle School, said Thursday that students in his World Studies class sometimes have more information on the subject than he does.

In another Westland classroom Thursday, when teacher Brian Camp mistakenly referred to the former White House intern in the controversy as "Marsha" Lewinsky, several 12-year-olds instantly called out, "Monica," to correct him.

As information about the story has flowed, there has been intense curiosity and substantial confusion, according to teachers, students and experts interviewed this week. Is Saddam Hussein behind this? What is perjury? What is impeachment? Who takes over if the president leaves office? Is the country in danger?

The sexual aspect, surprisingly perhaps, seems to take a back seat. Rosenberg said there may be private discussions among youngsters about the details of the allegations, but for them, the issue of integrity often is paramount.

"Kids are very concerned about what's honest and true, and what are lies, and what's deceitful and what isn't," he said. "They're examining society's entire presentation of morality. They are very critically examining the world they're growing into."

And as they do in this case, they may become disenchanted. "Our generation had Watergate, and so we had this whole level of disillusion with government," said Donna Boring, the history teacher who presided over the class at Holy Cross. "This is for them really a kind of interesting disillusioning experience."

This week, as adult Americans weighed the latest in the story of the president and the intern, other citizens in braces and ponytails, baggy jeans and saddle shoes thrust hands in the air and laid foreheads on algebra books as they struggled to figure out what exactly happened and what it really means.

At Holy Cross, heated discussion, moderated by Boring, was joined almost from the opening bell.

"It's stupid that the whole country is so involved in this when it's his private life and that does not involve everybody else," began Kristen Essex, 17, of Rockville.

"What goes on in his life, that's his business and Hillary's business," she said. "It is not our business as to whether or not he's having affairs. There's plenty of other presidents who've been in office who've had affairs. . . . There are so many other issues we should be more concerned about."

A few desks away, Kate Tvelia, 17, also of Rockville, eagerly signaled to disagree.

The president is "a public figure," she said. "If he's going to go an have an affair, or alleged affair or whatever, then it is our business because he's our president."

Asked Boring: "Do we hold public officials to a higher standard of ethics?"

"Kind of, yeah," the student replied. "Not even a higher standard. . . . He took an oath when he married his wife, and if he cheated on her, that's really bad, too. It makes our country look terrible that our president is cheating on his wife."

Boring asked, "So what should he do?"

"He should learn how to control himself," Tvelia replied, raising her voice.

Meagan Meehan, 18, of Silver Spring, concurred: "Sure, [infidelity] happens all the time. People cheat on their wives. Wives cheat on their husbands all the time. That's not right either. But [Clinton] should definitely not do it because -- he's in charge!"

But, hold on, argued Kathleen Kennedy, 17, also of Silver Spring: "He hasn't even been proven guilty yet. . . . How can you just say he's guilty? He's innocent until proven guilty. That's one thing we have to stand by. . . . I think this whole Monica thing is, I don't know, just something that she made up. She has had a past history of lying about sexual relations. I think she might be just doing this up to get some attention."

On the arguments went until time ran out and the students departed, leaving behind a humid vacuum in the empty room.

In the end, said children's mental health expert Rosenberg, the controversy, although disturbing, may actually be used to teach youngsters several sound lessons.

Among them, he said, is the idea that "in our system, we can take someone as powerful as the president and we can examine whether he followed the law. It's a very positive, upbeat approach. And it's an important thing for kids to understand."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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