High school class de­bates the House im­peach­ment in­quiry

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LEARNING - By Au­dra D.S. Burch

CHALMETTE, La. — It was im­peach­ment day in Mr. Dier’s world his­tory class at Chalmette High School. An­drew John­son, the first im­peached pres­i­dent, was on the les­son plan. So was Richard Nixon, who avoided fac­ing such a fate by re­sign­ing. Bill Clin­ton, who also was im­peached but never con­victed, was also part of the dis­cus­sion.

But most of the class was cen­tered on the lat­est pres­i­dent to face pos­si­ble re­moval from of­fice: Don­ald Trump, who is on so­cial me­dia just as much as some of Chris Dier’s stu­dents.

At Chalmette High, lo­cated in a con­ser­va­tive Louisiana par­ish, the stu­dents in Dier’s class re­cently con­fronted the mer­its of the case against Trump, who stands ac­cused of pres­sur­ing Ukraine to in­ves­ti­gate his chief Demo­cratic ri­val, Joe Bi­den. Dier saw the Demo­cratic-led im­peach­ment in­quiry against Trump as an op­por­tu­nity: a real-time les­son in civics and po­lit­i­cal science for his stu­dents.

So, for two 90-minute class pe­ri­ods, Dier’s se­niors pre­tended to be mem­bers of Congress, but with­out the blus­ter and snip­ing — du­ti­fully obey­ing the signs on the walls about how to re­spect­fully agree to dis­agree. “We have never stud­ied any­thing that was un­fold­ing live,” said Grace Bartholo­mae, one of the stu­dents. “This is his­tory.”

To help his stu­dents un­der­stand the de­tails of the in­quiry, Dier as­sem­bled a bit of a crash-course les­son plan, in­clud­ing an ex­cerpt from the whistle­blower com­plaint about Trump’s 30-minute phone call with Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy, the pres­i­dent of Ukraine, along with a re­con­structed tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion.

The idea was to try to an­swer the same ques­tions vot­ers are ask­ing them­selves about po­ten­tial im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings against Trump.

Is Trump be­ing un­fairly cast as cor­rupt? Has he brazenly weaponized his of­fice for per­sonal gain? Did he seek the aid of a for­eign power to in­ter­fere in the next elec­tion? What are high crimes and mis­de­meanors any­way?

And is the rarest of con­sti­tu­tional con­se­quences, im­peach­ment by the House and then pos­si­ble con­vic­tion and re­moval from of­fice by the Se­nate, worth the trou­ble a year be­fore the next elec­tion — the first in which the stu­dents in Dier’s class, most of whom are 17 years old, will be el­i­gi­ble to vote?

Chalmette High is in St. Bernard Par­ish just south­east of New Or­leans, along the Mis­sis­sippi River. Sur­rounded by water and built largely upon fish­ing and oil re­finer­ies, the par­ish lost more than half of its pop­u­la­tion after Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina de­stroyed nearly ev­ery home.

Dier, 31, teaches in the same class­room where his mother, also a world his­tory teacher, taught five years be­fore. He had planned to tackle im­peach­ment later in the se­mes­ter, but when the Democrats be­gan an in­quiry last month, he moved those lessons up on the cal­en­dar to fol­low a study of the Viet­nam War.

He said the point was not just to study this par­tic­u­lar im­peach­ment in­quiry, but to push his stu­dents to en­gage as in­formed cit­i­zens at a time when many Amer­i­cans do not un­der­stand ba­sic civics.

He fig­ured the best way to ex­plore im­peach­ment in a neu­tral way was stick­ing to the Con­sti­tu­tion and the es­tab­lished facts of Trump’s ac­tions. That meant hav­ing the stu­dents, in a con­densed ver­sion of the im­peach­ment process, study how the Found­ing Fa­thers framed im­peach­ment and the step-by-step pro­ce­dures in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and Se­nate.

Dier di­vided the class into four groups and in­structed them to read the ma­te­rial they had been given, in­clud­ing the call tran­script and the whistle­blower com­plaint.

The stu­dents hud­dled in sep­a­rate cor­ners of the room read­ing aloud. Be­fore long, “bribery,” “trea­son,” “quid pro quo” and other im­peach­ment watch­words floated above the din of the dis­cus­sions.

The stu­dents did not share the same opin­ion on the mat­ter. To some, the phone call was a clear vi­o­la­tion; oth­ers strug­gled with the de­gree of wrong­ness. A hand­ful of stu­dents — a num­ber that would grow by the end of the les­son — fully sup­ported Trump.

“Abuse of power is sub­jec­tive,” in­sisted Hunter Wheaton, who ques­tioned whether the coun­try was ready for the ug­li­ness of im­peach­ment, which would re­quire ma­jor­ity sup­port in the House.

Even though she felt im­peach­ment and re­moval from of­fice was un­likely, Jenna Riess said that the in­quiry would re­veal what the pres­i­dent had done wrong, and that vot­ers would “use that in the next elec­tion and vote for a bet­ter can­di­date.”

After the dis­cus­sion, Dier polled the 21 stu­dents. This time there were three groups: those who sup­ported im­peach­ment (12), those who did not (four) and those who re­mained un­de­cided (five).

The un­de­cid­eds sat qui­etly in the cen­ter of the class­room, and the two op­pos­ing groups pre­pared their strong­est ar­gu­ments.

In a clos­ing state­ment about whether Trump should stay in of­fice, Alexis Re­sendez coolly ar­gued that mem­bers of Congress should re­spect the choice made by vot­ers in the 2016 elec­tion.

Ayla Hoey re­but­ted that the tran­script may seem sub­tle, but Trump “knew the power he had over other coun­tries. Even if it seems like Ukraine is not be­ing pushed, he knew what he asked for was go­ing to get done.”

In that fi­nal round, a two-thirds ma­jor­ity voted in fa­vor of re­mov­ing Trump. The tally: 14-7.

AKASHA RABUT/NEW YORK TIMES

Chris Dier, left, teaches his world his­tory class in Oc­to­ber at Chalmette High School in Chalmette, La. Dier had planned to teach about im­peach­ment later in the se­mes­ter, but when the Democrats be­gan an in­quiry last month, he moved the lessons up on the cal­en­dar.

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