Most Stonewall Jackson High School students can't vote. But that doesn't mean they don't care.
More than 100 of them gathered after school last week for a rally intended to increase political awareness among their classmates, student organizers said.
Six students went to Principal David Huckestein with the idea about two weeks ago, but the planning began in September, they said. They were concerned that voters aren't considering the needs of young people, they said.
"No one has been listening to us," said Meghan Tertocha, a 17-year-old senior and one of the organizers. "We will live with the results of this election, but we don't have a say."
Huckestein asked students not to make signs naming either President Bush or Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), but the colorful posters the students created still went straight to the heart of several thorny issues. "Don't Take Away an Unborn's Right to Live," one sign read. "Marriage = Love," read another.
After an introductory speech intended to support political action in general, students were invited to go up to the lectern to express their views. For an uninterrupted hour, they did, touching on topics that included religion, gay marriage, abortion and the war in Iraq. Only a handful of students who attended said they would be able to vote Tuesday, but that didn't stop the others from having opinions.
"I don't like Bush, and I don't like Kerry," said Ashleigh Shackelford, a 15-year-old sophomore and one of the first speakers. "But I feel like I'd rather go with Kerry because we went to Iraq for no reason at all."
Alexandra Jajonie, a 17-year-old senior, countered: "Everyone is blaming the war on Bush. But Congress has to vote to go to war" and Kerry was one of those who did, she said.
Even students who didn't plan to attend the rally were intrigued by the crowd that gathered. When some students left soon after speaking, others joined the group. Senior Morgan Derby, 17, told the group that she was driving past the rally and made it back to the street in front of the school when she decided to come back.
"What's the point in having an opinion if you don't actually express it?" she said.
"Flip-flopper!" one student called out, causing the crowd, including Derby, to burst into laughter. Derby then explained that she supported staying in Iraq, to put an end to the cycle of violence there.
The debate was passionate but mostly well-mannered. Students shushed their classmates who spoke while others were speaking. Others gathered off to one side to hold group discussions of their own.
Even if political views clashed, the students who attended said they loved the idea of the forum.
"I've never quite heard student opinions of the Democratic Party because I've always discussed this with friends and family, and we are Republicans," said Christi Gavis, a 17-year-old senior. "It makes more of a difference because we will be voting soon."
Senior Conrad Alex Smith Jr., 17, said, "We should do this more often on things. Just on school issues and other things that are going on the world."
Senior Amalia Castonguay, 17, who supports Democrats, said, "I think it's an incredible thing that we can speak our mind on school property."
Afterward, the organizers said they were pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Although the event had been announced for a week and advertised throughout the school, they weren't sure how many students would turn up, especially for an after-school event.
"I'm really glad there was a lot of both sides," said senior Marja Kudej, 17, one of the organizers.