In a year when middle-school students witnessed protests and rallies against police brutality, the Illinois Middle School Debate League chose “Criminal Justice Reform” as the topic for the year. Although the more than 75 students at Chute, King Arts and Nichols had spent several weeks preparing for the tournament in remote sessions, District 65 administrators prevented their participation in the initial tournament. 

‘Frustrating’ and Fragmented Response from the District

Response from the District about students’’ participating not just on Oct. 24 but in the yearlong series of tournaments has been sketchy, inconclusive and frustrating, said Michal Yariv, a volunteer coach of the Nichols Middle School Debate Club.

“I understand that nobody expected a worldwide pandemic, and everybody is struggling to kind of find the best way through it. But I think at this time, that the most critical pieces just communication, and good communication can happen regardless of if you’re in a pandemic or not.”

Ms. Yaris said she has received no direct response from the District and plans to speak at tonight’s School Board meeting. Some parents, though, have received responses. The mother of one of the Nichols debaters received a response from Board President Anya Tanyavutti saying that union negotiations “were what was preventing all of this from happening.” Another parent said she had received a response from Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley “that said all clubs are suspended … which left us in a bigger question about ‘Are we even allowed to have practices right now forget about the tournament?’ … We’re just kind of fumbling around in the dark right now,” she said.

On Oct. 23, the RoundTable asked the District about the decision to prevent the students from participating in the Oct. 24 debate, the cost to the District of allowing students to participate in debate and whether debate would be canceled for the entire year. As of the posting of this story on Monday afternoon, the District had not responded.

At the Oct. 26 Board meeting, however, administrators announced that debate clubs would be funded for the entire year.

The Nichols Debate Decision

Nichols students learned last week that Ms. Yariv decided they should not participate in the Oct. 24 debate, refraining in solidarity with the other two teams. A high-school debater whose son is on the Nichols team, Ms. Yariv is one of two volunteer coaches who took over about two months ago, since the teacher who was coaching the team did not return to Nichols this year.

Principal Jeffrey Zoul and other administrators have been supportive of the program, she said, but had not received notice that Nichols students could not participate in the tournament. But King Arts and Bessie Rhodes, which also had debate teams, had been told definitively that they could not participate until the District figured out whether or not they were going to fund debate for the year or [other] clubs for the year.

Ms. Yariv said she felt that in the interests of equity, the Nichols team needed to stand with the teams at the other two schools, but she encouraged the team members to watch the tournament. “If we talk about equity as a district, the most inequitable thing I could think of is letting the school who had a principal that said, ‘Yep, you could go ahead,’ while the other two schools couldn’t participate. I just thought was the definition of inequity. And so [the other coach and I explained to our kids that unless everybody could debate, we weren’t going to debate. … And they understand why we’re not, but they were really excited to start their debate season this past Saturday.”

Being this far into the pandemic, coaches and students transitioned to remote preparation – an hour and a half on Mondays and Wednesdays. Ms. Yariv said she works full-time remotely, “so this was not much different. And I think the kids are so used to Zoom and remote learning [so] it was kind of a natural extension of their normal day. …  And, and we go through the materials, and we just do everything as though we were in person.”

Debating Real-Life Issues

Debate, Ms. Yariv said teaches critical thinking, public speaking and “analytics on your feet. … And then there’s the content itself, which the kids are reading – adult-level material from periodicals and other reputable sources.” They also learn how to deconstruct what they have read, such as the author’s bias or motivation in writing the piece.

Also, we spent a lot of time understanding how to dissect what somebody’s saying. And I think, I think, particularly in this era, where we’re kind of news is coming into question whether it’s real or fake, teaching children how to dissect that and understand it is critical.”

These middle-school students participate in policy debates, at which they debate potential policies on the chosen topic – the one side recommending, for example, a certain strategy to solve a certain problem and the other side showing how or why that strategy would not be feasible. Last year the debate topic was that the United States should significantly reduce arms sales to foreign buyers, “so the kids were studying about the relations between Russia and Ukraine and what was happening in terms of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia – really, really complex topics,” Ms. Yariv said.

With this year’s broad topic of criminal justice reform, “what the kids will do is on the affirmative is present a policy change that they believe progresses forward on criminal justice reform, and then the negative will explain from a policy and an evidence perspective, why either the plan won’t be able to solve that, or why it may introduce unintended consequences that the affirmative is not thinking about.”

Money bail and predictive policing, both of which disproportionately impact people of color and low-income people, are two issues for debate, “so the topic couldn’t be more relevant,” Ms. Yariv said.

The Middle School Debate League provides material for the students, so they do not have to do their own research, as high-school debaters do. At this level, students are in a “Core Files League,” in which all debaters work from the same materials, allowing them to focus on analyzing the material and framing their arguments. “It really focuses them on good reasoning and analytic skills.”

At a tournament, teams of two students from different schools face each other for 40-45 minutes, one presenting the affirmative and the other, the negative. One student will give the “constructive speech,” laying out either the plan or the reason not to pursue the plan; the other will give the “rebuttal speech.” Each student is allowed five minutes of prep time.

Affirmative Arguments for Debate

Ms. Yariv told the RoundTable that last Wednesday, four days before the opening tournament, when the coaches told the students they would not be able to participate on Saturday, they also suggested writing to the District 65 Board members, explaining debate was important to them.

“We had some, some 11-year-olds writing deeply personal emails about why debate was important to them. … Some of the older kids, in the eighth grade wrote really great, really well constructed arguments about why [the Board] should fund debate and what their inaction was doing to the kids.”

Quintin Brown, a senior at Evanston Township High School, former Nichols debate team member and current volunteer coach, wrote to the Board “I have been going to middle school tournaments for the last six years as a participant, coach, and judge. … Debate is a wonderful opportunity for every middle-schooler to have. … It is one of the few extracurricular activities that teaches kids real world skills, such as public speaking and argument building. It teaches students about public policy in a neutral and unbiased manner at a standard that I would only compare to something like a high school AP government or history class. … I also want to draw your attention towards the fight for equity that you all champion as a District. … Debate is an activity that can help address that problem. Primarily, debate educates students on national and global policies, and often those relate to education in some form or another. Students learn about our education system, our government, and the way the United States acts in matters of national and foreign policy. This is incredibly powerful for so many kids because it is the only exposure that they can get in a field that literally affects their lives. … Debate is an activity with a net benefit on students’ academic performances. … Debate is an avenue for students of color like myself to access educational supplementary activities for free in an era where costs of education are putting students into trillions of debt. I again challenge you to name another activity that deserves priority over debate.”

Quinton praised the Board for the establishment of debate teams at Chute and Haven middle schools last year and said he was advocating not only for the Nichols team but for all District 65 middle-school students. His letter said, “The decision to revoke funding for the program is baseless and ridiculous. The entirety of the District deserves an opportunity that is truly life-changing, and especially an opportunity that can be preserved online during the Coronavirus pandemic.” 

The students’ and coaches’ wishes prevailed. Ms. Yariv, however, was ready for even a negative decision. She said if the Board had decided not to fund the debate clubs, she and others would “go out and fundraise for the District so that everybody can participate.” She added that other programs could be at risk, “but there’s so much goodwill and understanding right now within the community, people want to help people want to help make this situation better. And I think if the District would partner with the community … we could really come up with solutions that would help all clubs.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...