D.C. teenagers organized a mayoral forum Saturday to ask questions on a range of topics including education, gun violence and gentrification to candidates running for the city’s highest office.
But one notable candidate was missing: Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, the incumbent and overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic primary in June.
A spokesman for the mayor’s campaign said her cancellation was due to her being ill and canceling all events for the day.
Absent the mayor, the forum went on at the auditorium of Luke C. Moore High, an alternative high school in Northeast Washington.
Students lobbed questions to the lone mayoral candidate there: John Butler, a Democratic mayoral candidate, and to Karl A. Racine, a Democrat and the city’s attorney general who is running unopposed for reelection. Racine was not initially invited to the mayoral forum, but he said he asked if he could participate.
“I think it’s really important to show up, to be there and to listen,” Racine said.
Ernest E. Johnson will appear on the Democratic mayoral primary ballot, city elections records show, but the candidate did not attend the forum.
Dozens of teenagers and adults attended, although only youths were permitted to ask questions. They asked about mental health, sanctuary cities, suspensions that disproportionately affect minority students, vocational training, food access and gun violence.
The issues they said, permeated their lives, and touched on how low-income youths could gain career and housing security in a city that has become increasingly gentrified and expensive.
Racine said his office was committed to keeping as many children as possible out of the justice system and was focused on restorative justice — a discipline approach that requires students to engage in a mediation process where they take responsibility for their actions and renew their commitment to the school community. Butler said he also wanted schools to turn more to restorative justice, instead of suspensions and the criminal justice system.
Butler said he wanted more vocational training in schools, providing pathways to success to students who aren’t college bound.
“We will bring them back,” said Butler, a representative on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Northeast Washington in Ward 5 and a former lawyer who “consented to disbarment” in 2009 while contending with allegations of fraud and neglect. A D.C. Court of Appeals board rejected his application for reinstatement in 2016.
The DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, Mikva Challenge DC and Critical Exposure, all local nonprofits, sponsored the event.
Demitrius Carroll, a 17-year-old junior at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, said he was impressed with Butler’s responses to questions about food access.
“There’s no reason why west of the river should have 30 grocery stores while east of the river should have two,” Butler said.
Carroll, who lives near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in Northeast, said his family has to travel far to purchase fresh groceries, and he appreciated Butler’s commitment to bringing grocery stores to underserved communities — an undertaking that has proved difficult for city leaders.
“It was informative,” Carroll said. “He told us he would to whatever he could to bring more grocery stores.”
One student emcee asked everyone in the audience to raise their hands if they have lost a loved one to gun violence. A significant portion of the room raised hands.
The two candidates said police needed to build better relations with the community.
“When police interact with residents, they should not be thinking ‘grab the gun first,’” Racine said.
Another student asked what they thought about arming teachers to protect students in case a gunman entered a classroom. Both Butler and Racine answered that arming teachers was not the answer, saying more guns lead to more violence.
“Our young people need to have a voice,” Racine said. “The questions you all have asked here are the best questions that have been put to me.”