As It Happens

A U.S. high school class held its own mock impeachment trial. Here's what happened

Students at a Louisiana high school voted on whether to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump  — and they did it without the theatrics and vitriol that have plagued the inquiry in Washington. 

'This is history unfolding right before our eyes,' says Chalmette High School history teacher Chris Dier

While the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives debates whether to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump, so too did a high school history class in Louisiana. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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Students at a Louisiana high school voted on whether to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump  — and they did it without the theatrics and vitriol that have plagued the inquiry in Washington. 

Seniors at Chalmette High School held their own mock impeachment trial in class over the course of two days on Oct. 8-9, with students taking on the roles of senators, debating whether Trump's interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met the bar required to convict and remove him from office.

"This is history unfolding right before our eyes, so there's no way I could pass up an opportunity to bring that history to my students," history teacher Chris Dier told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"I wanted to bring that to my students and get them engaged with contemporary politics."

The story was first reported by the New York Times

'Most parents are OK with it'

A real-time civics lesson might seem like a risky idea during such a divisive time in American politics, but Dier says it's important to teach his students how the political process works, especially because many of them will be voting next year for the first time. 

"Social studies teachers, I think, in general, we're just hesitant to teach divisive topics, you know, in the past and present because of hyper-polarization or pushback from parents," he said.

"But I think avoiding a topic for those reasons is somewhat of a political move in and of itself. So to ignore it is making a statement there."

Teacher Chris Dier says held a mock impeachment trial in his high school history class because he wants the students to understand the history that's being made right now. (Jenna Riess/Submitted by Chris Dier)

Chalmette is in St. Bernard Parish just southeast of New Orleans. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump won the parish with 65 per cent of the vote. But teenagers, of course, don't always align politically with their parents' views. 

Dier says he didn't face any pushback from parents about the exercise. 

"Most parents, I think, want their students to be challenged and engaged on these topics. I think their concern is how the topics are presented," Dier said.

"Once they realize that it's presented in a manner that's not one way or another, then I think most parents are are OK with it."

'Senators for the day'

Dier says he doesn't tell his students what to think, but rather teaches them how to think critically. And first and foremost, that means getting informed.

The students' first task was to read the primary sources associated with the impeachment inquiry at the time — namely the anonymous whistleblower complaint that triggered the whole thing, and the summary released by the White House of the phone call between Trump and Zelensky.

At the heart of the inquiry — both in Chalmette and Washington — is whether Trump committed any impeachable offences by allegedly pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt that would ultimately harm Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the president can be removed from office for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours."

What exactly that means is unclear. Historically, it can encompass corruption and other abuses of the public's trust.

The students' discussion came before the Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified that Trump demanded the U.S. withhold vital military aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky vowed publicly to investigate the Democrats. 

Chris Dier's high school senior history class at Chalmette High School in Louisiana. (Submitted by Chris Dier)

Once they had done their homework, Dier divided the classroom into three sections: pro-impeachment, anti-impeachment and undecided.

The pros and cons then made their cases, inviting the undecided students to get up and join their sides. 

"I told them that they were senators for the day and they had to present their case, one side or the other," Dier said.

The students came armed with a myriad of perspectives.

Jihad Thabata was convinced to join the anti-impeachment side of the room, concluding there's no evidence Trump's phone call with Zelensky amounted to misconduct.

"Show me where this says it's illegal," he said, according to the New York Times.

Chance Beck, who argued in favour of impeachment, said corruption at the highest office cannot be tolerated. 

"It's not morally or politically correct for a president to be able to use national power or national aid that we give to Ukraine for a personal favour," Beck is quoted as saying.

Two-thirds for impeachment 

In the end, 14 students voted to impeach the president, and seven voted against it.

"Which, interestingly enough is an exact 67 per cent — the two-thirds needed," Dier said.

Currently, six committees from the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives are leading the impeachment inquiry behind closed doors.

If a simple majority vote brings charges against Trump under the articles of impeachment, he will face trial in the Republican-dominated Senate, where it would require at least two-thirds of members to vote to impeach.

While the actual impeachment process has seen mudslinging on all sides, Dier said the mock trial was refreshingly civil. 

"They were incredibly cordial with one another throughout the entire process," he said.

"It's fascinating because I go home and I turn on the TV or look at my phone and I just see so much bickering and people attacking one another — but my students were so respectful."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Chris Dier produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. 

 

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