Even at the elementary school level, Southern Elementary School teacher Sue Thomas has always been passionate about encouraging students to get involved in politics and elections.

In her 29 years of teaching, she has made it somewhat of a tradition to host a mock debate and mock election every four years, coinciding with presidential elections. She works with her fourth-grade class and fourth-graders throughout the school to organize the entire event, from choosing candidates to debate in front of the entire school to distributing pamphlets and posters so that their classmates can learn more.

On Friday, five fourth-grade students took to the stage of the school's cafeteria to act as presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, and a moderator. There was no mudslinging, name-calling or interrupting in this debate, though.

Instead, 9-year-olds Evan Allen, who played Trump; Christian Brakke, who played Pence; Lily Franklin, who played Clinton; and Jaden Clapsadl, who played Kaine, spoke about five major issues in this election, using plans and information from the candidates they were playing. They took their turns, shook hands and spoke confidently about immigration, global warming, health care and more.

Ten-year-old Annie Laubach was the moderator for the debate, introducing the candidates with background information for the students in the audience and receiving praise from state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, who attended the debate and spoke with the students about the importance of voting.

Klunk said in an interview after the mock debate that she felt it was important to address younger students about being politically involved because it can encourage them to stay involved as they get older.

She also said children have a teaching effect on parents. She's seen parents quit smoking, engage in healthier lifestyles and vote because their children have spoken with them about those issues. During her address to the students, Klunk encouraged the kids to ask their parents to take them with them to vote Tuesday.

"It's important for children to understand that even though they don't vote, they have a say," she said. "We may even have the future president sitting here today."

On the stage, the students involved had a chance to educate their fellow classmates about each of the candidates. After the debate, they said they had been practicing for nearly six weeks. Evan, who played Trump, said his favorite part was speaking in public and having the support of his family.

"I liked seeing my family out there," he said.

All of the "candidates" felt that Trump was going to win, but Annie, the moderator, said she agreed most with Clinton's policies. "She wants to let more immigrants come in and she wants to fix global warming," Annie explained. Thomas later said Annie was originally a Trump supporter before learning more about Clinton's stance on major issues.

Christian, who played Pence, explained that he would be voting for Trump because, "he knows business." Allen agreed, explaining that Trump wouldn't harm anything if he were president and suggesting the GOP candidate would just make refugees pay taxes.

Thomas and Principal Jim Hollinger said they were very proud of the students' ability to stick to the issues rather than drawing from the real candidates' behavior. Hollinger explained that the event was authentic to encourage students to get involved and remain involved with politics.


“What do high school seniors make of this remarkable presidential election season? We asked York County high school seniors — among our country's freshest voters — why they it's important for them to vote and what they're looking for in a candidate.

"This is important on a lot of levels," Hollinger said. "They learn the political process, about the candidates and they use research skills to put this together."

An important skill Thomas and Hollinger hoped the students got out of the exercise was to filter through each candidate's personality and focus on the issues they supported or didn't support. Even though there were only five fourth-graders who participated on stage in the mock debate, Thomas said all fourth-graders have been involved.

For example, on Monday, when the school holds its mock election, other students pass out buttons, run the polling places, give their classmates literature on the candidates and make posters for each. Thomas wanted to bring the election to a level the  students could understand.

Like Klunk and Hollinger, Thomas said she hopes the involvement will encourage students to vote when they are old enough.

"We don't have certain age groups voting right now," Thomas said. "If we can turn the tide on that thinking, that's important."

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