Your Schools

Party politics in CMS high schools? Teens say clubs bring value

North Carolina’s teen Republicans and Democrats agree on at least one thing: They’d like to see more party politics on high school campuses as a new school year opens in the heat of a historic presidential campaign.

Ryan Golden and Jake Morgan of North Carolina Teen Democrats and Jack Denton of North Carolina Teenage Republicans say they’re sending letters to more than 700 public high schools urging them to start chapters of both groups. The three state leaders, all seniors, are from Mecklenburg County.

“Both of our sides have a lot of skin in the game,” says a letter signed by Golden, who goes to North Mecklenburg High, and Denton, who attends Charlotte Catholic High. “Both of us have transformative nominees for President who will leave a mark on American politics until the end of our great Republic, and important races down ticket across the state of North Carolina.”

Morgan’s school, Providence High, is in the bipartisan crosshairs, with leaders of both groups saying they’re ready to wage a First Amendment battle for the right to form Democratic and Republican clubs there. Morgan, who’s state vice president for the teen Democrats, says a Providence teacher discouraged him from filing to form a school club last spring, saying the school already has a nonpartisan Stars and Stripes political club.

But while the teens talk about a Providence ban on partisan clubs, Providence Principal Tracey Harrill says those clubs simply have to clear the same hurdles as any other: Get 100 signatures and a faculty adviser, draw up a charter and demonstrate that they won’t replicate existing clubs. The process weeds out clubs that fade after the founder moves on or graduates, she says.

“We don’t need 400 clubs just so a student can add ‘I started a club’ to their resume,” Harrill said. “I wouldn’t be able to deny a club based on ideology.”

The strong emotions surrounding the presidential race may spark school challenges.

In April someone painted “2016 Trump Build the Wall” on the rock outside Ardrey Kell High. The school painted over it, partly because the message, a reference to Republican candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to block illegal immigrants from Mexico, might be offensive to some students, said Principal David Switzer. He says he decided to keep it simple by banning all political slogans.

“It’s a spirit rock,” he said, and that means sticking to messages related to the school and its students.

Switzer noted that teachers, too, have strong feelings about Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. They’ll have to strike a balance, he said, encouraging educational discussion without fueling animosity or imposing their views on students. “It’s tricky,” he said.

Denton and Morgan admit they’ve exchanged strong words about their candidates. But they say the partisan teen clubs working together can actually ease tension.

“We’re trying to usher in a new generation of politics where we’re not bickering, we’re collaborating,” Denton said.

He and Morgan both wax enthusiastic about the benefits of party engagement. Denton, who’s state president of teen Republicans, says he has done internships with U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and Charlotte mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock. He went to a recent Trump rally and got a photo with vice presidential candidate Mike Pence.

Morgan, vice president of the state’s teen Democrats, says he got involved when he moved from New York to Charlotte at age 13. He has met state Sen. Jeff Jackson, and shook hands with Clinton and President Barack Obama at a recent campaign rally in Charlotte. “My heart was beating out of my chest,” he said.

A handful of local schools, including Ardrey Kell and North Meck, already have chapters of one or both partisan clubs. Morgan says he plans to file an application at Providence when school starts, and Denton is seeking someone to start a GOP counterpart there.

Meanwhile, Providence history teacher Annie McCanless will continue her tradition of taking students to the inauguration. Morgan says he’ll be there, regardless of the outcome.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms