WASHINGTON – They swarmed the offices of U.S. representatives Wednesday demanding answers.
“We’re here to ask questions,” said Alex DeOrazio, as he greeted a staffer for Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.
But this was no congressional probe and DeOrazio was no investigator. The Glen Burnie fifth-grader was one of a group of elementary and middle-school students who fanned out through the Cannon House Office Building to quiz congressional staffers on their knowledge of the Constitution as part of “Liberty Day.”
In Butterfield’s office, legislative fellow Ryan McKeon knew that senators serve six-year terms, but he was stumped on the next question: “What are the three rights in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?”
“Oh, boy,” he said, asking the deputy press secretary if he knew.
“You should study,” said Alex, 11, handing him a copy of the Constitution from his bag.
“I should,” said McKeon, who learned that the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, excessive bail, and excessive fines.
Alex and his classmate Brett Charrier, 11, handed the staffer a sticker showing that he had been quizzed for Liberty Day, before heading off to at least 15 more offices, asking questions and stumping several others staffers.
Alex and Brett were among 23 students from Elvaton Christian Academy in Millersville who were on the Hill for Liberty Day, a campaign to raise awareness of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Other schools participating in Washington included Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington, the District’s Arts & Technology Academy and home-schooled students from the Bolling Area Home Educators.
Andy McKean is national coordinator of the Colorado-based nonprofit — also called Liberty Day — which works to raise awareness of the Constitution. McKean said the day, held annually during the week of James Madison’s birthday, has grown since it began nine years ago and was marked this year with activities in Congress and in 25 state capitals.
“Next year we want to have all 50 states,” McKean said.
This is the second year that students from Elvaton Academy have participated. They began with the fifth-graders last year, after a parent forwarded some information from McKean to the school, catching the attention of fifth-grade teacher Sarah Pope.
Pope, who was with the students Wednesday, said she signed on because the activity “provides an opportunity for our children to learn the Constitution,” and to do so easily by posing questions to others.
The kids said the staffers, for the most part, knew their Constitution.
“Most people just study the Constitution,” Alex said of the staffers, but he added that “this one guy” did not get any of the questions right, without naming him.
Brett noticed that some stumbled over particular questions, such as the three qualifications for becoming president of the United States. Most knew that the candidate had to be at least 35 years old and a natural-born citizen. The elusive, third requirement was that he or she has to have lived in the country for at least 14 years.
“Most people knew them but not all of them,” Brett said. “Pretty good, but not good.”
But he said it was OK for staffers to stumble over “unnecessary” or “unimportant” facts.
Alex said one of the easiest questions was “What are the first three words of the Constitution?” We the people, he answered.
When a staffer for Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Mitchellville, could not identify the amendment that provides for equal protection under the law after several tries, he was directed to page 26 of the Constitution booklet to learn that it was the 14th Amendment.
But there were apparently no hard feelings: The kids walked away from some offices with free treats and souvenirs.
Brett said he liked the popcorn from office of Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
“And I like the peanuts,” Alex said, of the free packets of peanuts taken from a few Texas offices.
-30- CNS 03-16-05