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posted: 3/16/2012 6:31 PM

'Exciting' visit, but questions mostly go unanswered

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John Hersey High School wanted Rick Santorum's visit to be an open forum to discuss democracy rather than the campaign at hand, but many students walked away Friday feeling their questions weren't answered, or mostly asked.

Santorum's campaign approached District 214 earlier this week. Hersey agreed to host him, stipulating the visit should not be a campaign stop and that he allow time for questions with the nearly 500 students who attended.

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"We want to help students understand the democratic process," said Principal Tina Cantrell. Students were not forced to come, but when Santorum arrived the auditorium was filled.

Still, he had spoken for about 30 minutes when English teacher Dale Dassonville broke in, reminding him to save time for questions.

Seven students were approved to ask questions; Santorum had time for three.

Questions were screened by both school officials and Santorum's advisers, said English department head Charles Venegoni. Ones that asked about social issues such as gay rights or religion were rejected.

The questions that got asked involved common campaign topics: the economy, universal health care -- and Becky Powell's query about Santorum's remarks that it was snobbish of President Obama to suggest all students should be able to go to college.

Santorum's answer talked about respecting all workers.

"It didn't feel like he answered the question at all," Powell said later.

"The kids put a lot of time into putting together questions that were thoughtful and respectful," Venegoni said. "We welcome debate, why doesn't he?"

A sampling of questions not asked:

• "Your campaign slogan is 'Made in America.' In light of this, would you favor government regulation to discourage companies from sending American jobs overseas?"

• Referencing Santorum's denunciation of John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about religion and politics: "In making policies that intersect moral and political issues, how will you reconcile the diverse political beliefs of faithful Christians and those of other or no religious beliefs, ensuring all moral views are represented fairly in the public square?"

• "Earlier this year you spoke to the Gulf Coast Energy Summit ... you promised to repeal 'every one of those high-cost regulations ... some of them environmental regulations,' like those imposed by the EPA. Without these policies in place, what do you suggest to ensure the safety of workers and citizens who reside near industries and businesses that emit hazardous materials?"

Cantrell said she was surprised by the "overwhelmingly negative" response from parents and students after Santorum's visit was announced.

"But I still think this is a legitimate opportunity for students to learn," she said. "Whether you like him or not, he is running for President of the United States."

As well, she said, it was exciting for the school and the students to be part of a presidential campaign.

Hersey has hosted political candidates before, including Bill Brady, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk.

"In my mind this is what public education is all about," said Dassonville, who helped organize the visit.

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