WASHINGTON – Thanks to the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club, Shaquonda Bibbins-Blakes can handle politicians with the confidence of a seasoned lobbyist.
Having already hobnobbed with President Clinton on behalf of the club, the 17-year-old traveled back to Washington earlier this month for a Capitol Hill news conference on a bill that would funnel money for computers to the club. The backers of the bill got teens a backdrop for a photo op; Shaquonda and other club members got a day off of school in addition to a chance to lobby for the bill.
“Everyone wants something out of a deal,” she said. “It works both ways, we use each other.”
Leaders of area youth groups say the practice of using kids at political events appears to be on the rise – in the words of one Hill staffer, they “round up kids on a regular basis around here” – but they defended its value as a lesson in civics. Others argue that the age-old tactic is increasingly being abused, particularly as elections heat up.
But everyone agreed that the practice seems to be increasing, even though there are no hard numbers to prove it.
“We often get calls from a number of places,” said Donna Waghorn, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Academy for Educational Development. “They say we need kids with disabilities and we connect them with disability organizations.”
Not only have calls for prop children increased, but most groups said that youth involvement in such events also appears to be on the rise — although none would admit to increasing their own participation.
“It’s increased over the past several months,” said Girl Scouts of America spokeswoman Laurie Steele. “There’s equal opportunity for both sides (political parties).”
Steele guessed that the tight election might have something to do with the increase.
Denise Tann, a spokeswoman for the D.C. school system, said the trend started about “10 to 15 years ago,” after a lull from the 1970s through the mid- 1980s, but right now it is “more in our face because it’s an election year.”
“I see no problem as long as there is an educational value,” said Tann.
Because of their proximity to Congress and the White House, schools in Washington and its suburbs are often tapped by politicians and youth advocacy groups.
It is so prevalent that school systems in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties have established guidelines on when children or schools can be used for political events. The president can almost always schedule a press event at a school, regardless of the issue; local politicians talking about clearly partisan issues can have a tougher time of it.
“This has been a common practice at the White House since Clinton was elected,” said Phil Sparks of the Communications Consortium Media Center, which coordinates events for non-profit groups. “Before Clinton, children were used a handful of times a year, now the Clinton administration has an event every couple of weeks.”
Michelle Byrnie, an aide in Gov. Parris Glendening’s press office, said “it’s far more powerful” to hear from children at a media event than it is just to have politicians talking about kids.
Yet the long and short-term effects of children’s participation in media events has not been fully studied.
“I think it’s great if the child understands the political ramifications,” said Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist. “The important piece is that the youngster understands what their smiling face is being used for.”
Berger, author of “Raising Children with Character,” emphasized the need for responsible adult involvement and cautioned against overzealous parents.
March of Dimes spokeswoman Maureen Ryan said such parents are a large part of the problem today of involving youth in the political process.
“Personally, it’s tough to see kids being put in that situation,” she said. “You want to see kids be kids.”
But, when done right, the practice has its defenders. Harford County Boys and Girls Clubs Executive Director Donald Mathis, whose office oversees Shaquonda’s club, said he believes the trips to Washington benefit the clubs while benefiting the children by exposing them to the political process.
“I would take them down every week if it would make a difference,” Mathis said.