Even though some of them can't yet legally vote, local high schoolers pressed congressional candidates April 17 on topics affecting the San Diego area and nation, such as gun safety, sexual harassment, immigration and reducing the public debt.
The students from Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad and La Jolla Country Day School hosted the forum, moderated by Scott Lewis of the Voice of San Diego, at Pacific Ridge and invited eight candidates for California's 49th congressional district.
The candidates on the panel included Democrats Doug Applegate, Sara Jacobs, Paul Kerr and Mike Levin; Republicans Brian Maryott and Joshua Schoonover; Peace & Freedom candidate Jordan Mills; and Libertarian Joshua Hancock.
When asked how they would reduce the public debt, the candidates seemed to agree the country was in a "financial mess," as Schoonover called it. They said it's important to make cuts but also have more money coming in.
Jacobs said she believes in deficit spending but only for tools that could grow the economy, like forgiving student loan debt.
Kerr said the United States needs a balanced budget, but the country can't achieve that "on the backs of seniors." He said he was concerned about cuts to social security and more needs to be done to make it easier for lower- and middle-class families to get by.
Levin and Applegate said reducing the public debt is imperative for the country's future. Levin encouraged a more progressive tax system, while Applegate encouraged more and earlier education.
Regarding the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, Schoonover warned women of the dangers of situations involving alcohol, and Hancock said women should be more aware of their surroundings at all times.
But Jacobs, the only woman on the panel, argued that men should hold more accountability and addressed the girls in the room.
"Nothing you did or will do means you deserve any of these things," she said. "It's not because you were looking at your phones or drinking alcohol."
She added a stronger system needs to be set in place that protects victims rather than abusers and that females need a stronger presence in CEO and governmental positions.
Kerr, a businessman, said the problem needs to be brought "more out into the open." He encouraged any members of Congress who have settled in court for sexual harassment lawsuits to resign immediately.
"We need to stand together and say this is not acceptable in the workplace, schools or in Washington," he said.
When it comes to gun violence and recent mass shootings, Levin, Applegate, Jacobs and Kerr called for a ban on assault rifles and stronger background checks.
"The problem is people remaining in the shadows in the darkness," Applegate said. "I'm for background checks, but that's not going to stop the mass shooters. We need to change the second amendment because it's for a well-regulated militia. We need to require gun owners to go to a live class or combat qualification range and prove they're a good guy with a gun."
But Hancock, Mills and Maryott instead encouraged increased campus security and gun safety programs.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," Hancock said.
He argued that people could still access handguns regardless of a ban on assault rifles and said criminals will "always find a way" to obtain a gun, legal or not.
When asked about immigration, most supported easier pathways to citizenship and support of immigrants.
Mills said he believes the country's agricultural system would not be able to succeed without immigrant workers and that he fears for how they are being treated.
"It terrifies me that we're having ICE (the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) — with more control than they've ever had — grabbing people at elementary schools, hospitals and grocery stores," he said. "It's repulsive. ... We need to stop the war on working people, especially immigrants."
The Democratic candidates and Mills said they support a clean DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act and clearer pathways to citizenship.
Jacobs said an issue of deported veterans also needs to be addressed, and the U.S. should take in more refugees.
But Maryott, Schoonover and Hancock said they supported President Donald Trump's wall along the Mexican border and the removal of certain illegal immigrants.
Maryott and Schoonover argued the country needs to secure itself for the amenities and opportunities it offers.
"There's simply too much here that many people around the world want," Schoonover said. "There's a line. There are people who are going about it the right way and they shouldn't be circumvented by those who aren't."
Hancock added he does not believe in amnesty, but there should be a pathway to citizenship for "everybody minus felons."
The candidates were also pressed about their positions on renewable energy, which Levin referred to as the country's most important issue.
"We need to do this now," he urged. "This is not something we get to fix. There is no planet b."
Most seemed to agree the idea should be embraced more, with Jacobs and Kerr saying the country should move completely to renewable energy by 2045 or 2050. Hancock said the country needs to diversify where its energy comes from and said he was pro-nuclear energy. Schoonover and Applegate argued the topic should be handled by the free markets.
Mills said the U.S. needs to make a "strong national effort to get renewable energy."
"We cannot free market our way out of this situation," he said.
But Maryott argued the issue is "planetarian," and the U.S. can't control how other countries operate.
"The real question is what's the right balanced approach for our country," he said. "There's a limit to what we can do."
Ethical responsibility is one of three key components at Pacific Ridge. Students participate in a year-long experiential program of Service Learning in which they meet once a week to gain academic, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving skills.
Bob Ogle, Head of School at Pacific Ridge, said students care about issues that affect their community and are becoming more civically engaged.
"Even though many of them aren't old enough to vote, the forum is a great opportunity for them to discuss those issues with adults in leadership positions and to make their voices heard," he said in a statement.
Sixteen people have thrown their hat in the ring for the congressional seat, with the primary election on June 5 and the general election on Nov. 6.
Earlier this year, Rep. Darrell Issa announced his retirement from his nearly two-decade-long career. The 49th Congressional District of California represents cities in the southern portion of the state, including South Orange County and the North San Diego cities of Encinitas, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe, Carlsbad, Vista, Oceanside and Camp Pendleton.