Nan Austin

Ceres students vote in a more civil Election 2016

Sixth-graders, including presidential candidate Jillian Mande, vote in La Rosa Elementary Student Council races via online survey rather than punch ballots at the school in Ceres, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
Sixth-graders, including presidential candidate Jillian Mande, vote in La Rosa Elementary Student Council races via online survey rather than punch ballots at the school in Ceres, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

Just when Election 2016 hit the too-awful-to-watch stage, I got the revitalizing experience of watching politics done old school, at a school.

La Rosa Elementary fourth, fifth and sixth grades voted Friday for Student Council officers in a refreshingly civil, civic exercise.

The Ceres campus elected a female president, as it turns out. Jillian Mande, 12, who took first in a three-way race, said giving her speech the day before was nerve-wracking, but she was determined to do a good job.

“I really believe I can be a good president and representative for this school,” the sixth-grader said Friday, “I want to help everyone.”

Asked if she was considering a future run for the national office, Mande said no – “I think this way is easier. You don’t have to travel around the world and make up a speech for everywhere you go.”

In her speech before her classmates, she said this: “Being respectful and setting good examples is also very important. Setting a good example is showing the younger grades, the younger students, what the rules are, except you are showing them how.”

Being respectful to set a good example – after the lashing out of last week’s grown-up campaigning, that is balm for the weary soul.

Also elected to the La Rosa Student Body ranks were Vice President Malika Zhu, who won in a seven-way race; Secretary Isabel Jimenez; Historian Caleb Overman; Student Representative Dylan Choup and Treasurer Klarytsa Martinez. Martinez won with her theme, “Together we can achieve great things.”

The voters, also fourth- through eighth-graders, sat through speeches by the 19 candidates at an assembly the day before, said La Rosa community liaison Padro Macias. All the candidates had to fill out an application, go through an interview panel and run a campaign, as well as making the speech.

There were only a few rules for the competitors, he said: “No incentives” – giving away candy was out. “Don’t make any promises you can’t make happen,” he added. Imagine if that were a rule for national politicians. Think how short campaign speeches would be.

Asked if there was a rule not to trash talk opponents, Macias looked taken aback. “There was no rule. We didn’t have that at all!” he said.

A very respectful civics lesson, then. The presidential race so needs to take a lesson from these 8- to 12-year-olds.

There was 100 percent La Rosa voter participation – no apathy here. Though, as with the U.S. elections, students had to be a certain age (fourth grade).

Voters filed in the polling place by class and found a laptop. Each laptop was set to an online survey teachers made that included pictures of all the candidates and instantly recorded the totals – no hanging chads in this election.

Four of the laptops were set up in official Stanislaus County voting booths loaned to the school for the day by Registrar of Voters Lee Lundrigan.

“We’re trying to make it as realistic as possible,” Macias said. Voters even got “I Voted” stickers before they headed back to class.

Now that the La Rosa officers and cabinet are in place, the group will have to get to work, he said. The Student Council picks out the dress-up days for the year, provides the manpower for the school’s fall festival, and raises funds for school events by selling healthy treats during lunch.

The upbeat, hope-filled campaigns provided just the spot of sunshine needed as an antidote to weeks of appalling conduct by grown-ups.

Appalling – I’m “doubling down” on that, because children hear the bickering, the bashing and the apocalyptic rhetoric pouring out of the 24-hour news drip, too, and a survey just out shows they are mimicking what the adults say, as well as being frightened by it.

On Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a compilation of teacher responses in a report. Online polls have no statistical merit, but reading the individual teacher comments is sobering.

In North Carolina, a high school teacher quoted in the report says she has “Latino students who carry their birth certificates and Social Security cards to school because they are afraid they will be deported,” and one Tennessee kindergarten teacher said a Latino child, told by classmates he will be sent to Mexico and trapped behind a wall, asks each day, “Is the wall here yet?”

Muslim students are being told they will be sent to some foreign country or killed once the election is over. Young African American children are terrified by rally chants. Some fear being deported to Africa – a continent they know no more about than white students. A Montana teacher said kids are hearing more hate language now than ever before. Other teachers report administrative moratoriums on even mentioning the election this year.

As we reach the pre-election crescendo, kids typically more likely to be bullied are faring the worst, teachers said.

“They’re not just scared. Teachers used words like hurt and dejected to describe the impact on their charges. The ideas and language coming from the presidential candidates are bad enough, but many students – Muslim, Hispanic and African American – are far more upset by the number of people, including classmates and even teachers, who seem to agree with Trump. They are struggling with the belief that ‘everyone hates them,’ ” the report said.

Personally, I liked one Renton, Wash., high school teacher’s stand: “For the first time in my career, I state bluntly what is appropriate conduct for a candidate for this country’s highest office.” She tells them, “If it can get you suspended from high school, you shouldn’t be espousing it as a candidate.”

Darn tootin’.

As if to underscore the low bar of this election, international observers from the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe will be monitoring the U.S. elections for the first time. Campaigns urging partisans to “watch” certain precincts, saying a loss proves a rigged election, and state laws called voter suppression efforts by higher courts are cited among our national impediments to free and fair elections.

Let us hope this marks a point at which the pendulum on civic consciousness will start to swing back. Let us hope kids reading about our three branches of government over the next four years will have more than a gridlocked Congress, a deadlocked Supreme Court and a stymied executive to study.

We need more, not less, civic education in schools – especially while the mud is flying outside. Schools such as La Rosa Elementary and lots of other campuses are doing a yeoman’s job, championing a principled competition where the winners are the earnest, honest folks who provide good examples to follow, even if they don’t win.

Grown-ups could learn a thing or two from them.