By Kristin Schultz
The political temperature at Niskayuna High School seems to have cooled, even if it remains heated in the adult world.
Republicans Amongst Democrats (RAD) Club came together at the high school in January 2015. Spanish teacher and 18-year district educator Lainie Christou is the club’s adviser. There are currently 15 students that meet once a month.
Last year, the club changed its official name to Respect All Political Parties (RAPP) but is still known on campus as RAD.
“We are a club for all parties and viewpoints,” Christou said.
She said that, despite the incendiary nature of last year’s presidential election, the club hosted a debate, in which multiple opinions were expressed.
“It all ended with everyone shaking hands,” she said.
While there were moments of civility and respect in 2016, schools could not prevent all political swipes from seeping through its doors.
“The politics were really bad last year,” said freshman Josh Cutting. He said that after he expressed his support for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton last year, a classmate called him a racist.
“It was heated at the middle school level,” Cutting said. He went on to say he’s proud to be a Republican but chooses when, where and how to express his opinions.
Club treasurer Nikita Waskiewicz was recently writing a paper for an English class. She said it was a character study on “Hamlet” character Ophelia. Her paper discussed the changing nature of feminism. Waskiewicz said she asked her classmates for their opinions to include in her homework but declined to share her own.
Club vice president Aidan Stevens said that among his friends, politics does not come up often. When it does, and they disagree, Stevens said they just agree to disagree.
“We can disagree and stay friends,” Stevens said. “It seems that in society, people can’t separate the two. They can’t disagree and still be friendly.” He went on to say the remedy to much of the divisive discourse is more listening and less shouting.
“Both sides do it,” Stevens said. “Republicans and Democrats get up and shout their opinions. I like to listen to other people. I want to hear what they have to say.”
Tolulope Oshinowo, club president and one of the founding members, said identity politics is holding society back from meaningful dialogue. “I will identify myself as a Republican and people will respond, ‘But you’re black,’ ” Oshinowo said. “My friends don’t care, but some people can’t see people of a different race being Republican.”
Oshinowo’s sister graduated from Niskayuna last year and is a freshman at Princeton University, where he said she does not have the opportunity to express her opinions freely.
“No one should feel they have to be quiet,” Christou said. “We should want to be heard and hear others.”
According to Christou, differences of opinion on social issues are the main points of contention.
Christou and the RAPP members said there are mechanisms in place at the high school to combat bullying of all kinds, including political bullying. While all of the students reported hearing or experiencing resistance to their points of view, none said they felt it rose to the level of bullying.
They said name-calling mainly occurs in the cafeteria, and students defend themselves rather than seeking adult intervention.
One student who was interviewed asked to remain anonymous. In another case, a parent asked that their child not be identified in this story, citing intolerance and potential backlash not just in the school, but also in the Niskayuna community at large.
All in all, students said politics and political discussions do not monopolize the school day. Students learn Spanish in Spanish class, math in math class and music in music class. They agreed that most of the politically driven discussions happen in English and social studies classes.
Stevens stated emphatically that, in his experience, teachers across academic disciplines have shown nothing but integrity and been nothing but respectful to all students during class discussions.
Oshinowo said teachers should present all sides of a controversial topic, not just their own opinions because students listen to and absorb what teachers say as truth.
Overall, students feel tensions have eased since the election, and Oshinowo wants to use the cooled environment to engage with other students and student groups in dialogue that works toward consensus.
RAPP will bring in guest speakers this school year and hopes to take up to 20 students to Washington D.C. in April.