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Allegations Make for Lively Student Discussion

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David Zack, a social studies teacher at Mount Vernon High School here, recently wrapped up his lessons about Congress and the legislative process and began a unit on the U.S. presidency. Talk about good timing.

"We've been talking about this since it broke," Mr. Zack said of the allegations surrounding President Clinton and a former White House intern.

And so it is not unusual for Mr. Zack's sophomore government class to begin each day with a discussion of the latest news about the matter. One day last week, student opinions were divided.

"There's definitely something ethically messed up with Clinton," said 16-year-old Nick Bailey. He expressed disgust at reported claims that Mr. Clinton had carried on an affair in his White House offices.

"Ronald Reagan would never be caught in the Oval Office without a coat and tie," Mr. Bailey said.

But several students spoke up for the president, even while expressing discomfort about the allegations.

"Our society is based on that thin line between truth and lies," said 15-year-old Kelly Ercole. "I don't see why the media needs to keep meddling in his personal life."

Kathleen Thompson, 15, said she is upset that federal investigators and the media are "picking on him when he's trying to do his job."

But when she thinks about Mr. Clinton's alleged behavior, "I really want to slap him," she said.

Mount Vernon High School, part of the 150,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district, is in a middle-class neighborhood barely a mile from George Washington's estate and just a short drive from the nation's capital.

Mr. Zack, 42, returned to classroom teaching four years ago after several years working for the Close Up Foundation, which coordinates visits to Washington by high school groups.

He said he tries to focus his presidency unit on such themes as presidential character and the paradoxes that surround the office. "We want the president to be a common man, yet we expect an uncommon performance," he said.

No Jokes

Mr. Zack also tries to keep the discussion on an intellectual plane. "We all watch [Jay] Leno, but we don't need to hear the jokes in class," he said.

The sophomores said they pay little attention to traditional news sources, such as newspapers, weekly magazines, and network TV broadcasts. Several said they had absorbed the details of the current allegations through the classroom discussions, from their parents, and even from late-night TV comics such as NBC's Mr. Leno.

"I get my news from Fox and from this class," said 15-year-old Kwame Yeboah-kankam.

Mr. Zack said the allegations make it that much more difficult to inspire young people to take interest in their roles as citizens.

"The hardest thing about teaching government now is breaking through the cynicism students have," he said. "Something like this just adds to it."

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