With the waning public faith and trust in U.S. institutions, it is important to develop new ways to drive civic engagement and ensure that young Americans play an active and informed role in creating their future. In service of this mission, the Civic Innovation Center and the University of Maryland School of Public Policy held an event on “Youth in the Civic Square”, with a special presentation by international scholar Dr. Jan Eichhorn followed by presentations and discussions with local high school students.
The event opened with the presentation by Dr. Jan Eichhorn, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and one of the leading scholars on lowering the voting age. Dr. Eichhorn reviewed the latest research on the issues and effects of extending the voting franchise to 16-year-olds in Scotland, where in 2014 the voting age was lowered to 16 for local elections. In recounting the political context surrounding the issue, Dr. Eichhorn explained how the initial partisan support became bipartisan once opposition parties realized that young people tend to be as ideologically diverse as adults. In a review of the arguments for and against lowering the voting age, Dr. Eichhorn explained how Scottish youth, once given the right to vote, became more interested in politics and began to engage in more political activity. This was partially attributed to the civic education in Scottish schools, where students looked to discuss timely and salient political issues. Finally, Dr. Eichhorn shared unpublished data indicating that Scots who first voted at 16 or 17 years old voted more reliably in subsequent elections than Scots who cast their first ballots at 18 years old or older. These preliminary results appear to confirm the theory that lowering the voting age will increase voter turnout over time. Following the presentation Dr. Eichhorn took questions from scholars and students in the audience, who expressed both cautious skepticism and optimism on the prospect of lowering the voting age in the United States.
For the second part of the event, journalism students from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School gave presentations and answered questions on issues relevant to today’s youth. In the first presentation on social justice in schools, students expressed concern about racism and discrimination in the school system and the presence of police officers on campus, known as School Resource Officers (SRO). Following student-led protests and advocacy in 2020, SROs were removed from Montgomery County Public Schools ahead of the 2021-2022 school year. Following an uptick in disciplinary incidents, which the students attributed to difficulty adjusting to in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, SROs are set to return to campus in a limited capacity. The students expressed dismay in the rollback of the policy change they had fought for and in the apparent inaction of local elected officials. Faculty in the audience reassured the students that social justice can be a long, difficult struggle and encouraged them to learn from the events.
During the second presentation, students discussed the state of mental health in schools. Referencing elevated rates of hopelessness and suicidal ideation, the students again referenced apparent inaction by policymakers and stressed the need for a more focused and comprehensive approach to mental health in school. The students recommended prioritizing health class, better community care, and destigmatizing seeking mental healthcare. As journalism students, the presenters also discussed the reporting they conducted on the issue in schools across Montgomery County, which gave them the opportunity to gain a fuller understanding of mental health challenges and amplify the voices of their peers.
The final student presentation covered the stress and anxiety surrounding the college application process. The students spoke about the pressure to build the best college application resume possible, which they viewed as a potential barrier to pursuing courses and activities more relevant to their interests. Having been taught that higher education is a pathway to stability and success, the students felt the need to sacrifice aspects of their dreams in order to accomplish the more immediate goal of attending a prestigious school. The presentation was followed by an in-depth and fruitful discussion between the students and a UMD admissions advisor, who gave advice and recommendations on the best ways for students to find balance between their dreams and goals.