High school class debates the House impeachment inquiry
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.
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.