Conservative students urge for open discussions in the classroom

Lauren Chen, Amrita Himmatraopet, and Drishti Upadhyaya from the Wildcat Tribune at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon, Calif., were winners in Headliners in Education’s April 2021 contest for Best Education Story


Drishti Upadhyaya/Wildcat Tribune

A number of politically conservative students at Dougherty Valley High School have felt silenced in the community and urge for greater tolerance.

(Lauren Chen, Amrita Himmatraopet, and Drishti Upadhyaya from Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon, Calif., were winners in Headliners in Education’s April 2021 contest for Best Education Story. Read the original story in the Wildcat Tribune HERE.)

Content Warning: This article contains brief mentions of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments.

“After I [opened up about being] conservative, I got doxxed, cyberbullied, and my house got egged four times. I’ve gotten death threats,” one Dougherty Valley High School student revealed.

“I had a friend who I’ve known for six years, who told me that he was conservative. I said ‘Hey, why didn’t you tell me?’ And he said, ‘I’m scared to tell anyone else.’ That stuck with me because I was like, you just couldn’t tell your closest friends? It’s a pretty big thing and I think [it’s because of] a stigma,” another stated.

A number of Dougherty Valley students with conservative or beliefs feel excluded within the community, despite teachers’ attempts to hold impartial political dialogue in their classes.

As of Feb. 10, 2019, there were 16,518 voters in San Ramon registered with the Democratic Party, and 8,907 voters registered with the Republican Party. With a majority of Democratic voters in the city, these conservative students, who were interviewed between October 2020 and February 2021, believe they are in the minority and their views are belittled, condemned, and even met with accusations of racism and homophobia.

Conservative student beliefs: Similarities and differences

Senior Lauren Kim has been especially vocal on social media supporting conservative policies.

“[My views were formulated] when the Black Lives Matter activism began [in spring 2020],” Kim explained. “Of course, I care about these present injustices in our society like police brutality. But, around that time, I posted something on Instagram that denounced the violence, rioting, and burning. I got a lot of hate from that one Instagram story.”

The incident led Kim to realize she held many right-wing views, unlike her peers.

“I kind of got forced into the world of politics because I had to learn how to defend myself against people who expressed different opinions.”

Sophomore Gayathri Viswanath has also had to defend her opinions at school because of her conservative-leaning views. During the 2019-2020 school year, she made what she thought was a casual comment about the presidential primaries that she says was blown out of proportion by classmates and led to hateful messages online.

“It’s just so hard expressing your opinion … the thing with being conservative here is that you have to be on defense all the time. There’s no way you can discuss [your views] without stating five things in the beginning: I’m not a Trump supporter, I’m not anti-LGBT rights, etc.,” Viswanath said.

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The Dougherty Valley population needs to change its attitude from the inside out.”

— Lauren Kim

Despite Kim and Viswanath facing similar backlash, their views differ greatly.

Viswanath is a Libertarian. She emphasized that she does not support former President Trump, highlighting the many differences that can exist between those who consider themselves “conservative.”

“For me, ‘conservative’ really just means what the founders envisioned in the 1700s: economic freedom and less government in control of businesses and people’s lives in general. I don’t agree with [all right-leaning policies], which is why I don’t consider myself completely to the right,” she stated.

Similar to Viswanath, senior Gobind Kapoor says he is “definitely a Libertarian.”

“I’m not too radical but I have capitalist-right beliefs. I started looking into other kinds of beliefs when I was in seventh or eighth grade. I think it was probably a combination of YouTube and just my thinking; Like, why do we need all this government regulation for no reason? That’s just the philosophy I’ve kept so far.”

In contrast, Kim supports former President Trump but does not affiliate with a particular party. She emphasized how her patriotism influenced her political beliefs.

“One of the most defining differences [between myself and other students] is probably my love for America,” Kim stated. “Everyone has an equal chance and opportunity in America. It doesn’t matter what your skin color or gender is in this country; if you want to do something, you can do it.”

“Both my parents immigrated from Korea,” she continued, stating that she believes race should have no bearing on one’s political views. “Some of Trump’s policies affect all races positively and it doesn’t matter if I’m Asian. For example, he lowered taxes and cut regulations for small businesses, which helps everyone in the US, no matter who you are.”

Christianity has also shaped some of Kim’s moral perspectives and those of senior Danielle Boyan.

“I believe that homosexuality is a sin, but I do not believe that the government should ban [same-sex marriage],” Kim explained as an example.

Boyan considers herself a “Republican conservative” who supports Trump. She said, “That’s what I grew up learning. My dad and my religion influenced my beliefs. My dad [emphasizes] politics because he’s a veteran, so I grew up hearing about that every day. I’m Christian, so I’m very pro-life.”

Political stereotypes harm conservatives

Despite their greatly differing views, every student made it clear that they had seen many harmful stereotypes and blanket statements surrounding conservatism.

“[People think] conservatives are always racist, middle-aged white men who separate people of color as ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals,’” Kim said. “However, that’s completely not true at all.”

Boyan also explained that many students’ negative perceptions of conservatives don’t accurately reflect the population.

“People make assumptions about my political beliefs all the time,” Boyan explained. “They [assume] you’re racist or homophobic, but that’s not how that works.”

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Life is political, so we should be allowing students to have a voice because, in real life, you’re walking into a very political space. So, the classroom should be political. But, there shouldn’t be politicization [toward any side].”

— Mr. Adam Bellows

Viswanath believes there needs to be a more open political conversation at DVHS to battle these misconceptions.

“If you mentioned the word ‘conservative’ [at DVHS] they’ll immediately attribute it to ‘racist, capitalist pig’… I don’t support Trump, but you hear the word “conservative” and people immediately assume the worst about you,” she said. “In my opinion, students need to get rid of that cognitive block in their head of what people are perceived to be… tolerance on both sides of the aisle is really important. Schools should offer an objective lens through history but encourage students to go out of their way and research what they truly believe.”

Every conservative student shared the viewpoint that the classroom should be as tolerant as possible.

“The Dougherty Valley population needs to change its attitude from the inside out,” Kim concurred. “It would help to have more conversations about tolerating different viewpoints in classes, but I don’t know if that’s feasible … Racism is wrong and we need to stand up against it, but on top of that, we need to understand that just because you’re conservative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a racist. I just think that we need to address those misconceptions.”

A polarizing classroom climate

Mr. Adam Bellows, a US History and AP Comparative Government and Politics teacher, agreed that tolerance is vital in any classroom.

For him, having political discussions is necessary due to the subjects he teaches.

“Life is political, so we should be allowing students to have a voice because, in real life, you’re walking into a very political space. So, the classroom should be political. But, there shouldn’t be politicization [toward any side],” Bellows said.

World History and the US History teacher Mr. Ryan Anderson takes a different view, stating that there is a time and place for politics outside of the classroom. He often compares events in history to current events but does not have extensive class discussions on current political issues.

“I didn’t address the [2020 Presidential Election] too much. I just had one comment based on something I saw online. It said, ‘Just because we disagree, doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.’ I shared that with all my classes and we had a little discussion about it. I just try to create that harmony. We can all be friends,” he said.

Legally, teachers cannot be biased toward particular political standpoints, and Anderson doesn’t believe he should have any influence in the matter at all when it comes to his students.

“As a teacher, it’s not my job to influence your political decisions. That’s something that needs to be discussed with your family, and your friends, your research, and things of that nature. My role is to help my students explore those avenues for themselves, and not impose my will onto future generations,” Anderson added.

However, when political discussions are necessary, Anderson believes that some students approach them in a more oppositional way, so he tries to guide them towards more mature discourse. “When [students] get involved in arguments, it’s about who’s right and who’s wrong, rather than just being like, ‘Hey, I understand where you’re coming from and I disagree with you.’”

Similarly, senior Kim believes that political discussions at DVHS should be more open-minded.

“We should have more civil discourse and be willing to hear people out instead of labeling them before talking to them. I know that when I’ve had conversations with people with open minds, it goes well, even if they believe something completely different than me. I just think that [we lack that], especially at DVHS. It’s just like one big mob rule that everyone goes along with. And so they’re not willing to hear the other side because they’re so confident in their own beliefs,” she said.

Bellows agreed that accepting everyone’s beliefs rather than labeling them is the first step toward tolerance.

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I didn’t address the [2020 Presidential Election] too much. I just had one comment based on something I saw online. It said, ‘Just because we disagree, doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.’ I shared that with all my classes and we had a little discussion about it. I just try to create that harmony. We can all be friends.”

— Mr. Ryan Anderson

He stated, “First and foremost, the classroom is a public commons place for us to exchange ideas … Our job [as teachers] is to make a safe place for learning, to make people feel comfortable, no matter what their beliefs are. But, as soon as somebody’s speech is about denigrating somebody for who they are, or calling for the inequality or marginalization of them, of course, that’s where I draw the line as a teacher.”

Though neither teacher has personally seen incidents of a student or teacher targeting anyone because of their political views, Viswanath did recall a past incident with a teacher at DV.

She said, “This teacher explicitly stated that certain topics were prohibited to even be discussed in class,” because they were political, even indirectly. “An example was how [the teacher] restricted us from mentioning the name of a popular restaurant chain because of the chain’s political beliefs. Generally, I have no problem if a teacher is liberal or anything because I respect their opinions, but in this [instance] it was extremely clear that any views that didn’t lean left were perceived as ‘evil,’ in a sense. Overall, the environment wasn’t very welcoming, and as the year progressed, I learned to listen rather than politely offer my input out of fear of backlash from the teacher or even the students themselves.”

Similarly, an anonymous conservative student, who wanted to keep their political beliefs private from DV teachers and students, mentioned that they prefer avoiding discussions about their political views in class altogether.

“I have a fear of revealing my true political beliefs. I’ve heard of teachers at other schools grading students lower because of their political beliefs, and some of my friends even had that happen to them. I don’t talk about my actual views in classes, especially in classes where we do talk about politics. I mostly try not to participate in the discussion if it’s voluntary; I just won’t say anything because I know it’s not worth it. In most classes, I just pretend to believe something else,” the anonymous student explained.

Boyan mentioned that she also speaks up less in the classroom and believes that school should not be a political environment.

“In the classroom, I tend to stay quieter in person, but online, I think it’s easier to say what I need to say without being worried that people will say things [against me]. I do think that politics should be minimized in class unless it is an unbiased conversation,” Boyan said.

Kapoor echoed this sentiment: “Luckily, people generally don’t say much to me because I try not to be a problem; I only open up about my beliefs sometimes. Teachers have always done their best to accommodate [everyone]. I don’t think I’ve ever felt under any particular attack, though I’ve felt that it’s a lot easier for people to go against me. I have a lot of [right-leaning] friends who refuse to talk in class discussions honestly because they’re scared that their beliefs might not be looked at favorably.”

While the other students aside from Viswanath had not experienced targeting from teachers in their classes, they did state that it did not seem possible for teachers to have a fully impartial classroom.

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In this [instance] it was extremely clear that any views that didn’t lean left were perceived as ‘evil,’ in a sense.”

— Gayathri Viswanath

Bellows admitted that achieving tolerance is an ongoing learning experience. He noted the importance of teachers’ consciousness of students’ different cultural backgrounds when teaching about certain global issues from an impartial standpoint.

For example, in AP Comparative Government, Bellows had to navigate teaching about the Chinese government in an inoffensive way to students who were Chinese, Taiwanese, or who had distinct opinions on that subject based on their heritage or familial beliefs.

Ethan Huang (‘20) attends UCLA as a history major and took Bellows’ AP Comparative Government class during his senior year 2019-2020. He states that he stands “somewhat center-right” on the political spectrum and mentioned that Bellows “really facilitated a healthy environment for discussion. We were all very respectful towards each other and I feel like that class, in particular, was very helpful for creating political discourse among different students.”

Like many of the other students, Huang highlighted how one’s heritage can influence one’s politics.

“My family’s not particularly religious, but they are immigrants from mainland China. Especially because before the [Chinese Communist] revolution, their family was landowning, therefore they suffered a lot under the Communist regime. So they raised me with an emphasis on anti-socialism, making me understand the horrors that they went through so that I wouldn’t have to go through them again in America,” he explained.

Anderson also had a similar experience where he had to remain impartial in the classroom to better support the needs of his students.

“I was teaching at a different school during the 2016 election that was very heavily Hispanic,” he said. “When Trump was elected, we had ‘Not my president’ mass walkouts. That’s an example of a time I didn’t share my own political opinions over those things. But we still had very important discussions and a lot of kids felt wronged by his election. The suffering that many people [both in history and the present] went through shouldn’t be forgotten or avoided just because it makes us uncomfortable.”

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Online, it’s easier to say what I need to say without being worried that people will say things [against me.]”

— Danielle Boyan

On increasing this tolerance, Bellows recommends “setting a clear example as a teacher first and…working as a class to come up with the agreements on how we interact, and what’s acceptable or not.”

In some situations, he says, it’s not a matter of a certain student’s political viewpoint, but the fact that students need to be reminded how to constructively address others.

“If you’re feeling silenced by your peers, bring that up to the teacher because we need to know and sometimes we miss specific incidents [between students],” he emphasized. “That is our job: to allow a political classroom that is not silencing or uncomfortable. We have ways of handling those situations, and we can give those students a voice in a way that doesn’t allow other students to pile on during a lesson.”

Huang agrees but further states that to achieve tolerance, it is necessary to start early on in a student’s life.

“The lower-level schools, like elementary and middle schools, need to teach more about opposing viewpoints [in general] because in high school, while it is still important, I feel like these ideas and [like-minded] groups have already been established,” Huang said.

“It’s difficult to change only through high school. In elementary school, kids don’t hate each other just because [of what they believe.] It only really happens in upper-middle and high school because people start to understand political concepts. So if children can express their beliefs at a younger age, I think that will build up in later ages to more inclusive discussions,” he added.

Anderson also hopes that “everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinions.”

He added, “I’m not afraid, personally, to ask clarifying questions. I can’t tell if someone is going through something I don’t know about. When I do know there are those students that maybe feel like they’re excluded, in any situation and not just politically, I always try to hold them after class. And that’s a lot more difficult through Zoom, but I hear them. And I think that helps break down the walls for students, to show that I’m willing to learn and progress. We teachers are always trying to become better.”

Left-wing responses to calls for tolerance

Left-leaning students at DV then provided their input, mostly supporting conservative students’ push for conversation.

Rohit Mantramurti, a junior, formed his political opinions through listening to those around him.

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I have a lot of [right-leaning] friends who refuse to talk in class discussions honestly because they’re scared that their beliefs might not be looked at favorably.”

— Gobind Kapoor

“[After talking to my friend] I kind of realized that I had no idea about any political theory so I started reading more, and then through that, I found myself being a leftist.”

Mantramurti stated that before the significant increase in political discussion throughout the country in recent years, he was unaware of the number of students that were not left-leaning at DVHS.

“I genuinely did not know that we even had [conservative] people going to our school until [spring of 2020], because [conservative students] are not too outspoken about their views. They’re in the minority, so of course, they feel uncomfortable. And I don’t know what can be done to change that.”

Though he believes “[it must be] an awful experience to be ostracized based on your political beliefs,” Mantramurti further added that he doesn’t necessarily agree with conservative students’ supposed views on race.

“I don’t go as far as say conservative students are all openly racist. But I would say that all of them unknowingly or knowingly support racist policies and beliefs,” he explained.

An anonymous Dougherty Valley sophomore who is a Democratic Socialist and a member of the LGBTQ+ community also has hesitations in creating a discourse with right-leaning students due to fundamental disagreements regarding human rights issues.

“It’s not that I’m not willing to speak to a conservative on policy, but rather I recognize that their standpoints harm me and the people I love. When you ask a conservative [on social media] why people were mad about their opinion, it is never an opinion about taxing the masses or other policy-based conservative talking points, but rather social issues such as sexuality and abortion. A [conservative’s] negative ‘opinion’ on my sexuality is them negating my right to be who I am. Trans women of color are disproportionately killed because of these so-called opinions. At that point, it’s no longer an opinion but dangerous rhetoric that aids in the violence against marginalized people,” they stated, citing the homophobic content on many social media platforms.

However, some Dougherty Valley students have vastly different perspectives based on their personal experiences.

Junior Sohan Sunderrajan has had an unusual journey of political self-discovery.

“[My political beliefs] have changed pretty drastically. In eighth and ninth grade, I was a right-leaning conservative because I was hooked up on Ben Shapiro and I was watching his videos all the time. And then as I grew out of that phase, I became more liberal. Because I live in California, all my family and friends kind of told me, ‘You’re an idiot. Don’t do that.’ Then [my views] just gradually just became more and more left-leaning,” he said.

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In elementary school, kids don’t hate each other just because [of what they believe] … So if children can express their beliefs at a younger age, I think that will build up in later ages to more inclusive discussions.”

— Ethan Huang

Now, Sunderrajan identifies as an anarcho-communist.

“I’m not going to lie, [I was influenced by] punk music because I play drums and then I started listening to punk music, and then I got introduced to [anarchism]. I started reading upon them, and I liked the core beliefs: I believe in a direct democracy. I’m an anti-capitalist [and believe in] communism in a stateless, moneyless, and classless society,” he explained.

Sunderrajan also expressed that he believes in a full separation of church and state, contrasting with seniors Kim and Boyan, both of whom stated that there were a few exceptions to their beliefs of the separation of church and state, due to them identifying as Christian.

Kim, for example, stated, “The government [shouldn’t] mandate [religiously influenced policies] where it’s not a clear-cut moral issue that everyone agrees on … people can have their personal religious beliefs. However, it just depends on the specific policy,” adding that though she cites religion as her pro life reasoning, many who aren’t religious are also anti abortion.

Junior Annika Desai, who considers herself a liberal, isn’t “super into politics” and has friends with conservative beliefs. She doesn’t see politics as a factor in friendship unless “it’s a [major] moral issue,” such as being a “anti-masker.”

Desai’s relationships with students holding conservative beliefs have allowed her to see the divide between Dougherty students. She recounted times where she would see people bashing her conservative friends because of their beliefs.

“There is a stigma behind being conservative. One of my best friends is a conservative and she has received a lot of backlash on social media about her beliefs. But her beliefs aren’t affecting anybody else. It shouldn’t be kids hating on other kids because of someone else’s political views. Even if you feel strongly against their viewpoints, it should be a conversation you have with that person, not just assuming, ‘Oh, she posted this and she’s done this, I’m not going to be friends with her. I’m going to spread rumors about her.’ That’s just unacceptable. And it’s kind of scary.”

Desai added that the intolerance she has seen has been on social media, not at school. She doesn’t believe school should be a place for politics and stated it would only create more division, and sees the root issue of divisive politics in the community as a rigid mindset held by students.

“The personalities of kids at Dougherty are really strong, and I feel like a lot of kids are completely closed-minded. And it’s not just in politics. I think that people should be respectful of other people’s choices, which students have not been doing on social media,” she said.

Without people’s rigid mindsets being reworked, Desai doesn’t see a more peaceful political atmosphere to be possible. She used TikTok as an example of this, explaining that despite the broad range of political beliefs, there is little constructive discourse, just hate.

The personalities of kids at Dougherty are really strong, and I feel like a lot of kids are completely closed-minded. And it’s not just in politics. I think that people should be respectful of other people’s choices, which students have not been doing on social media.”

— Annika Desai

“[I used to think,] maybe if more people were open in real life about what they believed in, people would understand where they’re coming from. But then you see platforms like TikTok, with people just coming at other people for supporting [controversial viewpoints]. Again, I think it’s just an issue of being close-minded,” she stated.

Mantramurti agreed, saying, “I feel like if our population had a greater diversity of political beliefs, we would just be more divided as a student body, because, if we just look at the country as a whole, unity is not happening. We’re getting so far apart. Right now, at school, everybody’s just kind of ambiguous. [Most students] assume everyone else is left-leaning but we don’t know for sure. Politically, I think this ambiguity might be the best thing we can do [to avoid further hate].”

Forming individual political identities

Because of the difficulties they face with their friends and in the classroom, several right-wing students continue to remain politically active outside of school.

Gobind Kapoor stated that doing your research is the most important factor in solidifying your personal beliefs.

“I would recommend just finding political commentary that you agree with, or taking the political compass test because although it’s kind of stupid, it can help you get a sense of who you are on that political spectrum. And above all, just be open. Don’t stop [researching] just because you think you’re [sure of your beliefs],” he recommended.

Likewise, Viswanath’s views were molded by studying history and economics extensively after a teacher encouraged her to formulate her political opinions from reading impartial sources. She’s also an active member of DVHS Speech and Debate, which she says is “fantastic to have open conversations” with open-minded people of many perspectives.

When asked what her advice is for students who want to solidify their views and learn more about politics, Viswanath recommended, “Read articles, analyze the data, and then kind of think of what it is that you lean towards. I suggest talking to kids and adults as well because their political opinions have been formed from their day-to-day life for the past 20 years or more,” adding that objective news is much more reliable than social media.

Similarly, Huang thinks that social media is not always the best place to share political opinions.

“Social media in general is such an open area. If you say something that people dislike, there are a lot of ways that it can get back at you with hate comments or whatever. [A better way to see change] is to do activism or work with city or county people. Social media can be helpful for awareness among teens especially, but I don’t think it’s the greatest tool.”

Kim has also remained politically active outside of the classroom. She joined the conservative group “Today is America” and serves as the publishing director within a youth bipartisan publishing group. She says that being able to read articles from authors across the political spectrum is “really good for our society… [we need to have] a civil look at both sides.”

Kim has also been the target of negative treatment online herself. In Dec. 2020, she attended a Turning Point USA conference in Florida to continue to stay active in the conservative community, and received criticism for posting photos on her public Instagram account, in which she posed with groups of other students while not wearing masks.

Furthermore, she has garnered a following of over 70,000 on TikTok (as of Jan. 2021) where she posts mainly “conservative political comedy videos and informational videos about the news,” although many DV students and online viewers have found them to be marginalizing or offensive.

“A lot of my TikToks tend to be controversial, but I don’t ever mean harm. I want to create funny and creative content. I want to go viral, so the more controversial your TikTok is, the more views it gets, but I never include anything racist or genuinely homophobic. Some generalization will inevitably occur for humor purposes. Other times I’ll make an informative video with a green screen of articles behind me, so for those, I do my research beforehand and make sure that the sources are reliable. People take [my videos] too seriously…but [making jokes is] the purpose of an entertainment app,” she explained, emphasizing that her “social media personality” is not how she acts in person.

However, despite maintaining some close friendships through “productive conversations,” Kim acknowledged that she has lost a lot of friends.

“A lot of people think I’m coming from a place of racism and hatred for myself. I’ve already tried to tell people, that’s not who I am, and they just won’t listen. I love everyone regardless of [their] gender, race, sex, whatever. And I won’t judge anyone, even if I make TikTok videos aimed towards specific groups,” she concluded.

Boyan continued to express her beliefs by remaining vocal online and attending local Trump rallies with her friends prior to the 2020 election. She mentioned being subject to hate but explained she handles incidents as politely as she can.

“I tend to brush [negative comments] off because I recognize people have different opinions than I do, and I try to be the bigger person. When people want to argue, I [am] as respectful as I can and make sure I base my comments off of facts rather than opinions,” she said.

Sticking up for one’s beliefs

The conservative students all agreed that despite the stigma surrounding conservatism at Dougherty Valley, it is vital to find some sort of outlet to be open about one’s true views.

Huang stated, “If other people [are] offended by your beliefs, there’s not much you can do, but don’t just try to hide it within yourself, [not even] to maintain a social image.”

Kim agreed, saying, “Some students don’t even tell their friends they are conservative, because they know that if their friends find out, they’re going to get ostracized, bullied, and harassed. But honestly, I would say to any conservatives or people who are afraid to speak out on their beliefs to just do it, because even if you’re going to get all this hate, it’s worth it.”

Viswanath also admitted that she was “kind of scared” to discuss her views so openly, but she thinks that in the end, “It’s a good thing [to be open], because I think everyone needs to have their voices heard one way or another.”

Ultimately, she believes that everyone deserves to be seen as an individual before being labelled by their political views.

“At DVHS, I’d like to think that for the people who know me, I’m a pretty nice person. I don’t think I fit the image that a lot of people would paint to be [conservative]. Everyone exists as real people with real jobs and real lives, and it’s important to just understand that they exist before what their political party paints them to be,” she said.