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Hilltown Charter School hosts mock debate, election

— With the clock ticking down to Election Day on Tuesday, students at the Hilltown Charter School held a lively mock debate late last month, when stand-in presidential and vice presidential candidates from five political parties squared off.

As the students began to take their seats in the all-school space, several young “Secret Service” members, clad in suit jackets, ties and sunglasses, scanned the room. While some “agents” fanned out, taking up positions in doorways, others escorted in the “candidates”: President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, as well as candidates from the Green Party, the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party

Surrogates for Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren were also there, kicking off the debate with their respective political speeches.

Members of the seventh and eighth grades portrayed the candidates and Secret Service personnel. The students had spent several class periods studying up on the debate process and the candidates’ major issues.

“In total, we basically had six hours to get them ready, but they were excited about learning more about the candidates and very interested in the debate strategy,” said John Van Beckum, who teaches 7th and 8th grade.

The debate covered the major issues, including health care, taxes, jobs and the economy, and foreign policy, with participants frequently challenging one another on their positions.

While the “candidates” vied for the last word and challenged their allotted time, student moderators kept tight control over the process.

“It was a lot of fun. I liked being able to lead the event. Only some of the candidates tried to talk over me, but I didn’t let that happen,” 12-year-old moderator Galen Winsor said.

At times, hecklers, played by teachers, leapt to their feet, yelling at the candidates. They were, however, immediately surrounded by Secret Service and escorted out of the auditorium.

“This was awesome. I enjoyed playing President Obama,” Beau Garbarini, 14, said. “Overall I feel like I am better educated on how the debates and elections work and also what each candidate stands for,” he said.

For some students, accurately portraying a candidate meant being able to convincingly talk about issues that they said they personally didn’t believe in.

“I learned a lot about what Mitt Romney believes and what his plan is,” said Cassidy Armstrong, 13, who portrayed Romney. “I don’t support him, and I think I dislike him more now than I did before, but I tried to play him correctly.” Several of the students had studied the candidates and their performances in the televised debates.

“They did a fantastic job, not just in representing the platforms of the candidates, but right down to the little details of dress and mannerisms,” said Amy Aaron, the school’s administrative coordinator.

All Hilltown students were involved in studying the election, in ways that gave them direct experience with the electoral process.

“From kindergarten up, all of the teachers worked very hard to integrate the topic into their classes,” Aaron said. “All the students were registered to vote by student registrars, and they will be voting after the debate,” she said.

Election results suffered a bit of a setback when the school was closed on Monday due to Hurricane Sandy. With school now back in session, the results were tallied on Tuesday and shook out as follows: Obama won the mock election by a landslide, with 117 votes to Romney’s 13 votes. Green Party candidate Jill Stein garnered 24 votes, and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode each netted four votes.

In the race for Massachusetts state senator, Warren bested incumbent Brown, with 134 votes to Brown’s 24.

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