Newsbreaker News: Small town students tackle big ideas

Courtesy of the Monterey Herald:

Pacific Grove High School junior Sarah Bitter, 17, with teacher Karinne Gordon in the nuclear disarmament club on Wednesday.  (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

“North Korea’s weapon program grew so much in 2017 that a bomb tested in September is believed to be a “real hydrogen bomb,” according to a story in The Washington Post.

At the rate that it’s going, North Korea could test a missile loaded with a live nuclear weapon this year.

The threat of nuclear war and disarmament is regularly discussed by a handful of students at Pacific Grove High School every Wednesday during lunch.

“The most important part of this club is education,” said Juliana Heritage, a junior and the club’s vice president. “In Russia, which is a nuclear state, there is a school that’s saying ‘we don’t believe in the proliferation of nuclear weapons and we want to disarm.’ I think it’s most important to raise a generation of people who believe in nuclear disarmament because the older generation right now … you have some people who are very aware but some who say ‘why don’t we just bomb them?’ They’re not aware of what a nuclear weapon does and how it affects a person’s life.”

English teacher Karinne Gordon began the Critical Issues Forum Club three years ago to discuss the topic with her students. Based out of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, the Critical Issues Forum provides a project-based learning curriculum for high school students on nuclear disarmament issues, but only three local schools use it: Pacific Grove, Santa Catalina and York School, according to the forum’s website. Sarah Bitter, the club’s president, has been a participant in the club since it started and she made a presentation for the Critical Issues Forum Conference when it met last year in Japan. They were the only public high school in the U.S. represented, Gordon said.

“These students presented the research findings of their team on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” Gordon said. Bitter and co-presenter Benjamin Jankowski also served on a panel in a public symposium hosted by Lassino Zerbo, the highest official of the Austria-based Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization.

The daughter of a nuclear scientist, Gordon grew up listening to concerns about the threat of nuclear weapons.

“I have a desire we reduce the number of nuclear weapons and reduce the threat,” she said. “To bring the number (of weapons) to zero, that sounds like pie in the sky, a dream but…”

But there’s hopeful signs, some of the students who meet to discuss these issues believe. On Wednesday, they discussed the notes of a lecture given in November by Nikolai Sokov of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The lecture discussed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the reactions by governments that possess nuclear weapons, such as the United States and Russia.

The students discuss the topic with mastery and seriousness. What kind of incentives can be given to countries to transform their nuclear technology for pacific uses? Sanctions are not really reliable. Countries that have little power are concerned about signing a treaty that would reduce the little power they have.

But disarmament is possible, Gordon told the students. South Africa attempted to start a nuclear weapons program but it gave it up. And when the Soviet Union dismantled, some of its former members like Ukraine returned the nuclear weapons to Russia.

“It’s not impossible for country to say ‘we don’t want to have nuclear weapons, we want to give up our technology; but as Sterling points out, it’s an intractable issue. “What role does this treaty have, which 50 countries did sign and 122 supported. It’s not a number to sneeze at.”

Sterling Halberstad, the newest member of the club, is a bit skeptical about the power of the tiny club at a small high school in small town U.S.A.

“I’m not fully sure me being a kid in this specific small area can do anything, but I think once we do our video we can help inform people to have a voice,” he said. “I need to get other people involved.”

Bitter, the longest serving member in the club, has seen enough changes to be convinced that change is possible.

“When we started our club it was not happening in many schools. Now more schools are involved,” she said. ‘The U.S ratification (of the nuclear treaties) is really important, and the Senate controls the ratification of treaties. In America we need to educate. America is a central part of ratification plan, and ratification is so important.'”

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