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When students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High debated gun control in class last November, they never imagined they were preparing to lead a national discussion on how to prevent school shootings.
As the debate team filled Google docs with research on state laws, brainstormed arguments for and against universal background checks and wrote speeches, they were amassing information that would later help them formulate arguments on national TV, in face-to-face meetings with Florida legislators and at vigils for their murdered classmates.
And it’s not just the students at Stoneman Douglas. Since a gunman opened fire at the high school last Wednesday, killing 17 people, teenagers from across Broward County have joined the call for stricter gun control policies. They have been praised for their composure and well-articulated arguments, which often appear so polished they have fueled conspiracy theories that the students are “crisis actors.”
But what really explains the students’ poise, said Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, is the school district’s system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age. Every public high school and middle school in the county has a debate program, along with more than two dozen elementary schools. It’s one of the largest debate programs in the country — and, amid the heartbreak, it has helped Broward students position themselves on the front lines of the #NeverAgain movement.
“I’m like a parent that is just beaming with pride in terms of how they have been able to express themselves, how they’ve exhibited a kind of courage that everybody needs to have and how they’re working to reclaim their future and do what they know is right,” Runcie said. “In some ways it seems like we’ve been preparing our kids for this moment without realizing it.”
The debate program has certainly helped prepare David Hogg, a senior at Stoneman Douglas who has appeared on nearly every major network and cable news program over the past week.
“It’s been immensely helpful because I’ve been able to speak articulately about these current events,” Hogg said Wednesday evening on his way to a CNN town hall at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. With no time to prepare any new arguments in recent days, Hogg said he’s relied on the research he conducted in debate class last fall.
“Exhausted is an understatement, but I like it,” he added, referring to the frequent media appearances. “The fast pace of the media cycle is what keeps me going.”
Hogg said he joined Stoneman Douglas’ debate program on a whim in ninth grade. At the high school, debate is both a class and an after-school activity. Roughly 80 percent of the 150 students who take the class also participate in competitions, which means they spend time preparing for debates in the afternoons and on weekends.
Although Hogg said he’s not a star on the team, he enjoys arguing about current events. “I’ve never won a single debate tournament, even come in 10th place,” he said. “I guess it shows you don’t have to be great at something to make an impact.”
Sophomore Sari Kaufman has also used her debate training to advocate for stricter gun control policies. On Sunday, the 15-year-old Stoneman Douglas student wrote a letter to lawmakers, which was grounded in her debate class research, that has been shared hundreds of times on social media. Kaufman also brought her debate notes on a trip to Tallahassee earlier this week to meet with lawmakers.
“I don’t think we made a huge change, but we definitely moved the needle a little more than it was before,” she said.
Gun control isn’t the only lesson from debate class that’s come in handy this past week. Students recently studied special interest groups and lobbying, said debate teacher and program director Jesus Caro. They talked about political action committees, the groups that raise money for candidates, and about groups like the National Rifle Association.
“Just to see that these kids aren’t bound by any of these rules … it’s really moving,” Caro said. “It does make me proud.”
Katherine Guerra, a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas and a debate team captain, has stayed out of the limelight. But she said the debate program has helped her classmates respond to the shooting. “We know what we want, and we have the research,” she said. “We know how things work and that gives us more liberty to speak out because we’re not unsure of things.”
“The thing is in debate you have to argue both sides, which is also beneficial because as much as we want to change things we also need to see the different views,” she added.
In recent years, some of the students on the team, which Caro described as “up and coming,” have traveled around the country to attend tournaments. This year, the national tournament will be held in Fort Lauderdale in June. The location was decided before the shooting, but Runcie said he plans to ask the National Speech & Debate Association to make gun control one of the topics at the competition.
The Stoneman Douglas team has a long road ahead before the national competition. A beloved member, 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, was killed during the shooting and the team is grieving the loss of other classmates and staff as well.
Caro said he hopes the open environment in debate class, where students have space to discuss controversial issues, will give them the opportunity to share what they’re feeling. “I just know I’m going to try to give everybody a chance to speak, try to create some sense of normalcy and definitely give them opportunities to develop solutions,” he said.