Students sharpen skills at law summit
By Josh O'Gorman
Herald Staff | April 14,2008
SOUTH ROYALTON — About 100 middle school students learned the fine points of negotiation, compromise and municipal politics during the 12th annual Youth for Justice Summit at Vermont Law School on Friday.
Sponsored by the Vermont Bar Association, the Vermont Principals' Association, the Dean of Student Affairs and Students for Community Outreach and Education, the summit's purpose was to teach middle school students to see more than one side of an issue and to make concessions to achieve a goal that will be good for all involved.
Participating schools included Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School for Essex Junction, Essex Middle School, Hazen Union School in Hardwick, Rivendell Academy in Orford, Riverside Middle School in Springfield, Stockbridge School, South Royalton School and Whitcomb Junior High in Bethel.
After a morning of learning different negotiation tactics, Riverside Middle School's pupils ate lunch and reflected on what they had just learned.
"We're learning how to agree," Carrie Mobus said. "There's a middle point and we're learning how to find it."
"We're learning that you can't always get what you want," Eibhilin Whittenmore said.
"Even if we're not going to discuss the topic they gave us, we can use this for other stuff," said Lauren Fountain.
This year's summit topic was "Negotiations and the Democratic Process: How to Resolve our Environmental Dilemmas." Pupils were given the task of trying to decide the location of a proposed landfill in "Smalltown, Vt.," and were assigned different special interests. Some students were advocates of the downtown association, others spoke on behalf of a low-income housing project and still others wanted to keep the landfill far from their homes on "Nimby Street."
The pupils were broken up into groups and given the task of trying to reach some sort of compromise while still trying to represent their own interests.
At the start of the summit they were also given a plastic bag and instructed to carry around all of the trash they generated for the day.
After lunch, all of the trash was collected and piled high in front of the stage in the Chase Community Center. Having spent the morning in negotiations, the groups made their cases for where the landfill should be located before a mock planning commission.
The mock planning board was composed of Sharon Planning Commission member Abby Armstrong, Royalton Selectwoman Peg Trombly and Matt Gould.
Of the eight groups that argued before the board, six of them advocated the site of a former scrap yard that is adjacent to a 35-house development, also known as Nimby Street.
Armstrong grilled the presenters as if the town and landfill were real, asking them what the landfill would do to property values and how the prevailing winds might blow the smell of the landfill across the neighborhood.
One pupil said as a compromise, the developer had offered to build a community pool for the Nimby neighborhood.
"What good is a pool if the place reeks?" Armstrong asked from behind the real-life pile of garbage that the pupils had generated that day.
Most groups liked the site because it was near the interstate, which prompted Gould to note that "everyone who comes to town will have to drive by the dump."
Lauren Fountain argued for a landfill site adjacent to the town's country club, saying that as a compromise the developer would be willing to build a new clubhouse.
Still another student proposed putting the landfill next to an affordable housing complex and offered to build a community playground as a compromise.
After hearing all of the presentations, the board adjourned to deliberate. When they returned, it appeared this simulation truly did mimic real life because Armstrong said the board needed more information before it could make a decision.
Armstrong said the board wanted to know which way the winds blew across town and which neighborhoods would be affected as well as the location of the town's water source.
Despite not rendering a decision, the board had nothing but praise for the presenters.
"You all did a wonderful job," Trombly said. "You were very persuasive and I commend you on that."
"I was very impressed with your poise and cooperation and it gives me hope for the future," Armstrong said.
Contact Josh O'Gorman at firstname.lastname@example.org.