Tara Ziegler looked at the crowd and prepared to voice her opinion on why the city of Washougal should not pass a bicycle helmet ordinance.
“It is really our family members or guardian’s responsibility, not the government’s job, to keep us safe and wear helmets,” she said.
Marinah Vargo disagreed.
“Everyone who is involved with the city should want to do this,” she said. “Having this law would help keep the whole community safe.”
Despite the serious tone of the debate, this wasn’t being conducted during a City Council meeting, but rather in a school library.
The debaters? Fifth-graders in Laura Kurtz and Andrew Schlauch’s classes at Hathaway Elementary.
Kurtz said the debate has been a year in the making.
“Our school secretary, Mindy Smith, suggested the idea that our kids could work to pass a helmet ordinance in Washougal,” she said. “Mr. Schlauch and I talked more about it, and decided to have them research the issue and decide their own stance on it. After that went well, we decided to have a debate.”
Students began preparing two months ago, conducting research using their iPads. Each made a presentation outlining their opinion and the reasons behind it.
“Successful adults need to be able to take a stance and support that stance,” Kurtz said. “Making decisions based on evidence, research and consideration are real-world skills that the kids need. Debating is a wonderful way to hone these skills. The kids enjoy the opportunity to take the world around them seriously and to be taken seriously in return.”
Added Schlauch, “It was important to me that we had the students lead the way with the topic of bike safety and kids being required to wear helmets. This is a topic that directly affects each and every one of them. Now that they have had the chance to really research, make a stand, and discuss the pros and cons of the topic, they would be more likely to follow the ordinance in the future if it were to ever occur.”
The actual debate was between two teams of five students, selected anonymously by their peers for their listening, research and speaking skills.
They included Paige Maas, Aiden Barton, Riley Maddix, Marinah Vargo, Jackson Lucas, Allison Swenson, Danielle Melton, Tara Ziegler and Braiden Palen. The introduction was by Lauren Humphreys and the closing was by Jacob Gregerson.
Some of the reasons given for not passing an ordinance included that it is not the government’s responsibility, good helmets are expensive and some people cannot afford them, and that citations in other cities are overwhelming issued to African-American and Latino children.
Arguments in favor of an ordinance include the reduction of brain and head injuries, part of the city’s responsibility is to help keep the community safe and that helmets are less costly than hospital bills.
“If you can’t afford a helmet, you can’t afford brain surgery,” one debater remarked.
To add an air of authenticity, Washougal City Council members Joyce Lindsay and David Shoemaker attended a rehearsal of the debate points the students planned to present.
“We wanted to show them what our kids can do,” Kurtz said.
The elected leaders were impressed.
“The students’ points were well thought out,” Lindsay said. “Both sides had some very good arguments as to why or why not a helmet law would be beneficial in Washougal. It is important for your City Council to know what our young citizens are thinking.”
Parents Taylor and Heather Maddix came to the debate to support their daughter, Riley.
“I think this experience is very positive for the kids to feel like they can have an influence on local government,” he said.
At the conclusion, the group in support of a helmet law won for their use of strong facts and valid data from their research to support their positions.
With the win on the affirmative side of helmets, Kurtz said they will see if the council wants to take it further, or if the kids want to start a petition to get a local law passed.
“There’s real potential to work to pass a helmet ordinance,” she said.