The speech and debate All-Congress meet was held Saturday at Paonia High School. Just as the 115th U.S. Congress is doing, about 35 students from North Fork, Grand Junction and Montrose area high schools wrote, introduced and debated bills on two House floors throughout the daylong event. Some bills were voted down, others died, and some, in theory, continued their way to the desk of the president, where they will either be signed or vetoed.
Delta Middle School sixth-grade language arts teacher Bret Hamilton is head coach of the Paonia High speech and debate team, which hosted the event. Speech and debate teaches about government, but it also teaches life skills, including memorization, research, and debating of complex issues, said Hamilton.
Speech and debate is also a competitive extracurricular activity of the Colorado High School Activities Association. And it isn't all about passing laws. Competitive categories include extemporaneous speaking; original oratory; dramatic, humorous, poetry and duo interpretation; impromptu speaking; cross examination debate; public forum and policy debate; and student congress. It also includes a Lincoln Douglas Debate, named after the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas and focusing in the moral issues of the day. This year's topic was whether countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power.
At the All-Congress meet, students are judged under a points system. Each session is overseen by a presiding officers. Speeches are timed, and the officer ensures that all students are given equal time at the podium.
Among the many bills introduced Saturday, one would have required life skills classes in high school, one sought to ban youth football in schools, and another required that seatbelts be installed in all school buses.
The bill to ban youth football was amended to include only tackle football due to risk of injuries to developing brains before failing. Another bill requiring police departments to give preference to veterans when hiring in order to reduce veteran unemployment, passed.
Senior Dylan Ashby, a third-year member, co-captain and Hotchkiss senior, said he had some challenges with the three bills he introduced. He wrote the bill requiring three years of life skills in all high schools. There were too many legislative holes in it, said Ashby. Three amendments were proposed for the bill, and two passed, including one lowering it to a one-year program due to an error written into the bill. It ultimately failed.
Because the meet was small and focused on only one category, Hamilton wanted challenge students by introducing new concepts. The idea was to introduce complex ideas to get students thinking about the meet as a political event. "Some of these students may go into politics," said Hamilton. These are complex subjects that the class never talks about that they will need to understand.
To add another dimension to the debate, Hamilton created a "Filibuster Award." Filibusters are meant to take up time and delay votes, but time was limited. To accommodate the shortage of time, students wanting to compete for the award were required give an entire speech in rhyme. About a dozen competed for the award, said Hamilton. Grand Junction Central High School competitor Kiernan Forster was the winner. Due to a tie for second place, the two students had to read their speech for as long as possible using only one breath to determine the top placer.
To introduce the concept of corruption, coaches and judges offered student representatives bribes during lunch break. One student representative tore up his fake cash bribe ahead of his speech in favor of the schoolbus seatbelt bill and was immediately and harshly reprimanded by the House chair for destroying U.S. currency. The chair demanded his resignation. "The House Ethics Committee will be looking into this," said the chair.
In real life, "This is how it goes in Congress," said Hamilton. "It's good for them to be aware of what might change their minds." He was also happy to see that the student couldn't be bought.
Ashby was the only Paonia team member to place at the event. He finished third among the students in his chamber. He and teammate Tyler Denison, a junior at Hotchkiss High School, have had a lot of success this year in duo acting, said Hamilton. The category involves performing a routine taken directly from a play. Students must memorize their parts, do their own choreography, and perform without any eye or physical contact.
Paonia will compete in Montrose this weekend. Delta High School will host the 12-school Region VI State Qualifying Tournament Feb. 25.