Arts & Culture

Mock legislature: Learning by doing, debating

From Contact magazine, Winter 2015-16

Some say colleges would be safer if people were allowed to carry firearms on campus. For others, however, the idea sounds dangerous.

A weighty issue for sure, and one a group of 30 Palm Beach State College students didn’t shy away from debating last April on the Florida State Senate floor as part of the College’s new Mock Legislature Program.

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Ricardo Sanatan debates concealed weapons on college campuses as a mock senator.

“My opinion is that it is a Second Amendment right, and that students would feel a lot safer knowing they can protect themselves in situations they would rather not be in,” said Jon Carter, a sophomore who served

as a mock senator during the debate. “However, I didn’t vote in favor of it because I had talked to quite a number of students on the Boca Raton campus who were against it, and I was up there to represent them and be their voice.”

Their debate was lengthy, and at times heated, but in the end the mock bill failed to pass by just one vote. Mock bills that succeeded called for eliminating tuition surcharges on excess credit hours and providing in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants, among others.

While they rejected or adopted bills in symbolic fashion only, the students got an experience that mirrored a real day in the Legislature. They not only debated issues among their peers but actually performed the roles of the key players in the legislative process, including committee chairs, senators, delegates, the speaker of the house, the president of the senate and the governor.

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PBSC student Vintwon Jones joins in the debate.

“It gives them a better understanding of the freedoms laid out in the Bill of Rights and state and federal constitutions,” said Robert Van Der Velde, J.D., PBSC associate dean and the program advisor. “With every mock bill came an opportunity to express their opinions freely.”

Bills drafted by students ranged from controversial to thought-provoking, often reflecting the major issues being debated in the real Legislature. Participating students got to meet with individual legislators and attend education sessions detailing how the Legislature runs. They also had gallery seats to observe actual proceedings when the House was in session.

For Carter, who is studying mass communications and political science, the trip to Tallahassee was a reminder of how important it is to be civically engaged.

“I learned three important things while I was there,” said Carter. “The first was that we have a voice, and it has a lot of weight that we just don’t use like we should. The second was that we need to vote, and the third was that the House and Senate are two different animals. In the House, representatives would go back and forth mocking each other’s bills and in
the Senate the discussions were a little more civil.”

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For fun, students also engaged in a hand-shaking contest to boost their first impression performances.

“It needs to be strong and firm, but not bone crushing,” advised Van Der Velde.

The trip to the Capitol is the program highlight, but students also spend time throughout the year organizing their own mock sessions on campus, and visiting other Florida colleges to meet and interact with students. In October, students got to serve as House representatives and state senators among their peers from each of the 28 Florida colleges at the 2015 Florida Model Legislative Conference in Orlando.

At the two-day event, students debated such topics as minimum wage, textbook affordability, terrorism education, boating under the influence, police body cameras and more.

“The Model Legislature has given me a lot more confidence to address the issues,” said student Alyssa La Tulippe. “It has given me valuable tools to make me a more powerful speaker and a more organized and relatable speaker. It’s also made me more comfortable in knowing how to behave around lawmakers.”

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Mock House and Senate leader students participate in a bill signing ceremony in class with Robert Van Der Velde, J.D. (center) acting as the governor.

Van Der Velde said the program has a powerful impact on students, showing them that they can make a difference even at a young age.

“They come into the program with only a minimal understanding of how the Legislature works, and they come away with a very rich and detailed understanding by both doing it themselves and going to Tallahassee and witnessing the process,” said Van Der Velde. “Now, they are not only better informed citizens, but more importantly they are prepared to be civically engaged for their entire lives.”

As students learn what goes on in the state, they also get opportunities to understand how the national legislative process works through the Congress to Campus program, which brings a bipartisan pair of former members of Congress to campus every other year.

The most recent guests, former Congressmen Martin Lawrence (D) of North Carolina and Tom Petri (R) of Wisconsin, met with students in classes, held forums and conferred with student government leaders during their three-day stay.

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