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Rutgers Debate Union mentors North Star Academy students

Discussion surrounding the extreme lack of diversity in the American Parliamentary Debate Association has created the need for debate unions to reach beyond white, wealthy high schools to connect with schools primarily composed of students of color, Kurt Falk said.

North Star Academy in Newark is one of those schools. The student body is 99 percent black or Hispanic, with about 80 percent of students on free or reduced lunch, said Falk, the assistant coach of the North Star Academy debate team.

The Rutgers University Debate Union and North Star Academy students partnered up to discuss ways the federal government could reduce police violence in a post-Ferguson context on Saturday at the North Star Academy Debate Series, held Saturday at the School of Communication and Information on the College Avenue campus.

The event takes place once a semester. Each RUDU member is paired up with one high school student to form and defend an argument through three rounds of debate.

During the first round, one team argued that the federal government should implement gun control to curb police violence, while the second team took the opposing position. 

Hikmah Okoya, a North Star Academy student, said the government needs to impose gun control laws that apply to everyone, but especially police departments, due to the unfairness that has been shown toward black community members.

Okoya supported her argument with evidence from the George Zimmerman case and the results of gun reform laws in Australia. She described how after the Australian government reformed its gun laws in 1996, firearm homicides in the country dropped 59 percent between 1995 and 2006.

Deepta Janardhan, who graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences in May, countered that argument and said gun control is not necessary to reduce violence.

“We think violence has increased because of the attitude communities have toward the police,” she said. “People have a massive distrust of the police in general.”

Instead of implementing gun control laws, her team supported gun training for civilians to increase trust between local police and the community.

Janardhan and Tahiv McGee, a member of the North Star Academy Debate team, won first place at the tournament with their undefeated record of 3-0.

RUDU President Quinn Maingi and Okoya came in second with a score of 2-1.

Falk, also the director of the event, said the topic hit close to home.

“One of the first things [the students] at North Star discussed when they got back to school was [how] Ferguson … affects students and how they can navigate in that world,” Falk said. “The students can really relate to that.”

In a debate workshop after each round, the high school students met with their Rutgers mentor for advice on how to refine their argumentation, structure their ideas and deliver their key points more effectively. 

Maingi, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, mentored Okoya and gave her feedback during the debate workshop. 

“Project more and speak with confidence,” Maingi said. He also advised her to state the plan of action sooner in her argument and not to feel nervous while speaking.

North Star Academy, whose graduating class has a 100 percent college acceptance rate, greatly stresses the importance of college readiness, according to North Star’s website.

To prepare the students for college debate teams, the teams modified the high school debate format through what is called cross-examination to align more with the style of debate used in college tournaments, Janardhan said.

The Debate Series is beneficial to the students because it provides them with a chance to visit a college campus and explore the world of higher education, Falk said.

Students in another workshop answered any questions the students had about college life. Each panel member shared challenges they faced coming to Rutgers, why they picked their course of study, benefits Rutgers provides and stories about college life, such as living with a weird roommate, Falk said in an email.

In addition to the benefits high school students gain from the workshop, the Rutgers Debate Union has benefits of its own. 

In college debate tournaments, the students are able to choose the debate cases. With a more diverse team, the tournament would more likely choose different topics.

“We would hear different perspectives during the debate that we normally wouldn’t hear,” Falk said. “It’s important we recruit a more diverse team for this reason.”