Elected student representatives Rusty Barnes and Amelia Aburn beamed at the crowd of PTA members gathered in the media center at Burleigh Manor Middle School on a recent Monday night. The time had come for the students to deliver on their campaign promises. They were ready to make their pitch:
"Our goal is to . . . give kids a safe place to celebrate on Halloween," Amelia began, enunciating every word.
Their mission: To give Burleigh Manor students their first-ever Halloween dance, complete with costumes, a DJ, pizza and drinks. Principal Barbara Hoffman already was endorsing the project.
"Our action plan is to secure the date, the time, the place of the dance," Rusty followed up. The students just needed to persuade the PTA to provide volunteers and chaperons.
Far from the world of swing states and spin rooms, the students at Burleigh Manor were getting a hands-on lesson in politics and public service. The school is home to one of a growing number of middle school student councils in the county. Long a bastion of high school life, the councils recently are increasingly popular among students several years removed from the legal voting age.
"We're just trying to get [students] involved and develop them so they can get up to the high school level," said Corinne Ung, a freshman at Centennial High School who helped establish the student council at Burleigh Manor. "I think the goal is to have both of them be equal at one point."
At least three other middle schools -- Wilde Lake, Elkridge Landing and Mount View -- have active councils, said Tony Miceli, a math teacher at Burleigh Manor who sponsors the program there. Last year was the first time that Howard sent middle schoolers to a state student council conference that draws mostly older teens, he said.
The program has exploded at Burleigh Manor since Miceli introduced it three years ago. Each year, students vote for 12 eighth-graders to sit on the council. Candidates shoot commercials with catchy slogans such as "Don't make this election stinky! Vote for Mickey!" There is even a campaign day, when students can shake hands and pass out stickers and buttons. Miceli said the elections not only help build school spirit but also teach students an important civics lesson.
"I tell them, 'Don't promise anything you can't do,' " he said.
In the past two years, Burleigh Manor council representatives have successfully lobbied for a winter dance, put recycling bins in classrooms and started a scholarship fund. On a recent Tuesday, long after the last bell had run, council representatives gathered in Miceli's classroom to snack on candy and chips before getting down to business.
Rusty and Amelia, both 13, brainstormed ideas for social events with two other students. They wrote down the possibilities with a black marker on a sheet of loose-leaf paper.
"You have to make it so that everyone wants to be involved, and, like, likes it," said Maura Imel, 13. "That can be kind of challenging."
There's spirit week, of course. They could have a movie night, a Sadie Hawkins dance, a luau with a roasted bull -- though the vegetarians might object. They could hold a roller skating party, though last year's student council had one and turnout wasn't that great.
"Seventh grade is the hardest grade to please," said Caroline Titan, 13, sighing.
"All they want is dances," Maura said. "That's all I wanted in seventh grade."
Meanwhile, Rusty and Amelia were working on just that -- the school's first Halloween dance. They drafted a set of regulations to convince parents that their children would be responsible -- no masks, no weapons, no gore -- but would also allow the students to have a good time.
A week later, the students presented their plan to the school PTA. The parents peppered them with questions: How will they get permission slips out? How many chaperons will they need? How will they keep students from other schools from crashing the dance?
Rusty and Amelia smoothly addressed the parents' concerns. After about 20 minutes of discussion, the PTA voted to support the students' efforts.
"This is really well done and well organized," PTA President Jenny Abel said.
The parents applauded. Rusty and Amelia smiled again. They had won their dance.