PALM HARBOR — The teens took their seats in the auditorium, turned off their cellphones and slipped their iPads and laptops into their backpacks. Adults observed them from the table in the front of the room.
Dr. David Liebert of St. Petersburg College was one of the first to address the teens.
"My grandmother used to say that children were supposed to be seen and not heard,'' he said. "Well tonight, it is about you children being heard and adults being seen and not heard.''
Labeled a Teen Town Hall, the meeting Thursday at the Palm Harbor Library was coordinated by the Palm Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee. It was a chance for students ages 13 to 18, to ask questions of a panel of community leaders including County Commissioner Norm Roche; Pinellas County sheriff's deputy Jeff Cuttita, who is a school resource officer at Palm Harbor University High School; Trish Harrison, events manager at the Centre in Palm Harbor; Tarpon Springs High principal Clint Herbic, and Palm Harbor University High principal Christen Tonry.
Liebert, chairman of social and behavioral sciences and psychology at SPC-Tarpon Springs, was moderator.
For close to two hours, more than 20 teens, many of them members of the Palm Harbor Library Youth Advisory Board, asked questions on topics ranging from e-book usage in Pinellas schools, to how home schoolers could feel more a part of the community, to whether the FCAT is still a relevant test.
"I'll take a crack at that one,'' said Tonry, concerning the FCAT query.
"I think (the Florida Department of Education) is changing its ways, moving toward exams in specific subject areas that are pertinent for a student to master before they graduate,'' she said. "And they're moving toward creating a standardized test that will offer a comparison to students across the nation. You won't be compared with students just in Florida but students nationwide.''
Herbic agreed. "The old FCAT is on the way out, and although the new (standardized test) won't be easier, I think it will be more fair.''
Several students asked about how to handle the rising cost of college tuition while resources like Bright Futures are shrinking.
Liebert pointed out that schools like St. Petersburg College are working to make higher education more affordable.
"I tell you we're the best deal in town,'' Liebert said. "But remember, education is not an inexpensive process. It's a commitment.''
Roche shared that both of his daughters used Bright Futures monies to attend college, and he is dismayed to see funding reduced.
"But whether it is the same amount or smaller, whether you get 100 percent Bright Futures, 80 percent Bright Futures or less, it will still be valuable to you. Don't get down on it,'' he said.
Lena Schwallenberg, a junior at Palm Harbor University High, asked her principal about how to hold a peaceful protest on campus. She explained that students were upset that they had substitute teachers for six weeks in one class.
"If there is a hot button issue you feel passionate about," Tonry said, "I encourage you to try to work through it with the administration.
"But as far as protesting goes, (wearing arm bands) would be considered a peaceful demonstration," she said. "But if you show up to protest with sticks and picket signs and chant, 'We're not going to class,' well, that's not peaceful, and that's when Deputy Cuttita would get involved.''
Cuttita stressed that youths need to use their freedom of speech appropriately and be careful what they write online.
"Obviously, Facebook is huge. I've read things that I can't believe students are writing, and the fact they think it's okay is ridiculous," he said. "If you don't think colleges and future employers look at it, well they do.''
After the meeting, Schwallenberg explained that the students had wanted "to voice our opinion on how there wasn't a sufficient amount of teachers.''
"We weren't sure how to express that,'' she said. "I think that I'm now more likely to go to the principal with concerns.''
And the Teen Town Hall made Morgan Cribbin, a senior at Palm Harbor University High, realize that "teens need to speak up more.''
"I don't think teens know how powerful their voices are,'' she said. "And the event also made me realize that adults assume we know certain things, but we don't — not until they give us the answers.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.