Milton High School students dominated U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ sixth annual State of the Union essay contest, filling two of the top three spots.

MHS senior Meredith Holbrook impressed the panel of five Vermont teachers who served as volunteer judges, taking first place in the contest. Competition was steep this year: 799 students from 39 high schools around the state submitted essays compared to last year’s 454 entries, Sanders’ office said.

Fellow MHS senior Ryan Racicot won third place in this year’s contest, and seniors Megan Bromley and Sara Manfredi placed among the top 20 finalists.

“As is always the case, I am so impressed by the wide range of issues students wrote about this year, and by the quality of the essays,” said Sanders, who serves on the Senate Education Committee and is a Democratic candidate for president in 2016. “While there is no shortage of obstacles facing the  United States, it is heartening to see so many young Vermonters thinking about the direction we need to go as a nation.”

Essays of the winners and finalists will be entered into the Congressional Record, the official archive of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.


 

Meredith Holbrook

Meredith Holbrook

By MEREDITH HOLBROOK, First Place

My fellow Americans, today the United States has the strongest military in the world. Our nation has the number one economy. We have the longest running democratic government in history. If we want to be considered the greatest in the world, the home of the free, the land of opportunity, then we must face the challenges before us.

In 2014, 48.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure homes; of this, 15.3 million were children. This equates to 14 percent of households being food-insecure. How can the wealthiest nation in the world be unable to feed its hungry? We have the full capability of providing for those in need. We should not allow politics to stop us from caring for our citizens in need. It is impossible to expect the people of this country to be functioning members of society without adequate nourishment. The solution to this problem is simple: Feed America’s hungry. I believe that if we were to create a cabinet-level agency dedicated specifically to food insecurity, we would be bettering the common good of America. Devoting $10 billion from the federal budget would make a tremendous improvement in the number of food-insecure homes. It may be a bold move to make, but our nation cannot move forward until our people are no longer hungry.

Alongside hunger is homelessness. On one given night in America, about 560,000 citizens are homeless, and about 200,000 of those people are in families. It should be the basic right of our people to have shelter and security. The wound of homelessness cannot be solved with night-time shelters. Homeless people must be provided with long-term shelters if they are ever to be productive members of society. In order to solve this issue, we must invest in job counseling. Many homeless citizens are homeless due to the inability to acquire a job. If people had the chance to have a clean interview outfit, as well as proper interview instruction, there would not be as many people sleeping on the streets. In order to make this happen, we must have more people trained in the expertise of job counseling and more programs helping to aid homeless citizens. Again, this would mean funding such programs. A small cost to pay to get Americans off the streets.

How a nation treats its elderly says a lot about its character. We will not be a nation that ignores the needs of its senior citizens. Today, many seniors cannot comfortably retire. They are often forced to choose between paying for food or paying for medication. They will go without heat because they cannot afford to buy fuel. The source of this issue is Social Security. Although this retirement system has benefited many Americans, it needs to be changed. Social Security often does not change with inflation, or does not change enough to account for increased prices. While prices are rising, Social Security is not keeping up. This leaves seniors to make difficult choices regarding spending. Every year, Social Security should be assessed and changed accordingly to inflation. To pay for this, we would need to raise the Social Security tax percentage to 7 percent. This would allow America to adequately pay for the needs of our elderly.

This nation is nowhere near perfect. We have many issues we must address, domestic and foreign. We cannot expect to properly address issues overseas until we fix the home we live in. We must fix America from within. Once we do this, we will truly be able to call ourselves the greatest nation in the world.

Ryan Racicot

Ryan Racicot

By RYAN RACICOT, Third Place

The most pressing and immediate danger of today’s society is the rapidly changing climate. The scientific community agrees virtually unanimously that climate change is a very real and imminent concern. Continuation down the current path at this pace will eventually result in the ultimate demise of the human race.

This issue is not the United States’ to tackle alone. In order to fully reverse the effects of climate change, it will take a worldwide collaborative effort unlike anything the world has ever faced before. The U.S.’ role going forward is to set an example for other first world countries. The United Nations conference this year in Paris was a step in the right direction. But the U.S. needs to agree to a binding commitment to reduce emissions. Without a whole-hearted promise to abide to these reductions, the U.S. will not be taken seriously on this issue.

The U.S. government cannot expect corporations to make eco-friendly movements unprovoked; it is simply not worth the financial burden. The federal government needs to incentivize eco-friendly waste management for businesses by making eco-friendly business more profitable than environmentally irresponsible business. As it stands now, no company has motivation to protect the environment. Doing so only hurts production and makes them less competitive. To reverse this trend, the federal government needs to enforce pre-existing environmental laws and spend more on environmental saving measures.

To convert all factories to updated standards for emissions, a large amount of money will be needed initially, but over time, a system in which clean energy is valued more than profit will result in a much more sustainable economy. Companies who destroy the environment and experience greater profit as a result will be forced to pay for their own pollution management systems. Greatly increasing taxes on environmentally irresponsible corporations will make clean energy more fiscally appealing than polluting means of energy. This is not stealing money from the American people or a redistribution of wealth. This is using money made by multi-billion dollar companies at the expense of the environment to help fix the problem they themselves helped to create. Also, by taking the charge on creating environmentally friendly products and machinery, the potential for the U.S. to make a profit is huge. By incentivizing other countries to go eco-friendly and selling the materials and means to do so creates jobs and income, which boosts the U.S. economy, all without destroying the environment.

Unlike many other issues troubling the state of Vermont, the nation and the world, climate change affects every single person. Regardless of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion, education or political affiliation, climate change affects all, especially the most disadvantaged. Because of this, it is everyone’s personal responsibility to do their part in saving the planet. One cannot stand idle and expect other people do all of the dirty work. Helping to save the earth is not about how you can benefit, it is about how you can help the greater cause. We can no longer allow large corporations to prioritize making a profit over responsible waste management. The short term profits for the rich are vastly outweighed by the long term environmental consequences felt by all.

Megan Bromley

Megan Bromley

By MEGAN BROMLEY, Finalist

My fellow Americans, sometimes overlooked are the basic human rights and needs of the people. While this may entail many topics, I would like to focus on a major issue that has slid under the radar for far too long. The epidemic of rape and sexual assault runs rampant through our country, and not much has been done to change this continuing tragedy.

Steps may be taken. The first step must address the unprocessed rape kits. Throughout our country there are over 20,000 unprocessed rape kits. Add to this the estimate that 68 percent of rapes or sexual assaults that occur go unreported. Imagine how large the number of unanalyzed kits there would then be if even 50 percent more were to be reported. This is a challenging issue, and it cannot be solved overnight; however, there are steps to take in the right direction aside from moral and ethical obligations.

One solution that could be enforced is a quota – by this, I imply that every city must meet a certain number of kits processed in order to get the number of prosecutors facing jail time or other capital punishment inclining. Too many cases go without investigation even after the kit has been used and the victim has been tested; this crime is not fading away and must be faced head on, not shied away from due to technical complications that can be entirely avoided. The federal government should follow through with a funded mandate for state and city law enforcement, to help them process the kits and create additional lab facilities.

Now, as I have just said, the number of people who have committed a sexual assault crime in prison would increase due to the processing of more rape kits. This leads to my next point of discussion: Incarceration rates and funding for prisons. 12.7 percent of inmates are serving time for drug violations and marijuana expenses. We are pouring millions of dollars into our state and federal prison systems, and too much of that is going towards people who face up to 20 years for marijuana possession.

I propose to use the funding instead to evaluate something such as unprocessed rape kits and begin to treat minor drug use in a proactive manner. Marijuana possession should be removed as a state and federal crime and result in no jail time. Instead, as a nation, we should implement counseling after a three strike policy or enter the convicted person into a rehabilitation program if the drug use worsens.

Many other countries decriminalized the use and/or possession of marijuana, and they have some of the lowest rates regarding drug use and misdemeanor crimes. Just by reducing incarceration of people convicted of misdemeanor drug crimes, there would be an inclination of money to put forth on other issues at hand, not just processing rape kits.

Taking one step at a time towards the issues that are more manageable such as the two I have just discussed is how America can move forward. It doesn’t need to be a leap of faith and a tackle at a major issue; one objective at a time culminates for a strong, prosperous country.

Sara Manfredi

Sara Manfredi

By SARA MANFREDI, Finalist

Before I begin this address, I would like to take a moment to thank all of you for being here today. But there are issues our country must conquer in order to make our home safer as well as more equal for both ourselves and the generations to come.

In recent years, it has come to the attention of our government that there have been over 400,000 untested rape kits stuck in backlog all around the country. One precinct held over 5,000 in backlog, all untested, most cases left without any trial. How dare we do this to those hundreds upon thousands of victims? Who are we to deny them any sense of safety or justice? These facts have done nothing more than allow rapists to get out of any sort of punishment. This horrid trend must be stopped, and can only be stopped if this government takes immediate action.

The issue with this is that many of these local jurisdictions do not have the money to process these kits, because of the innate lack of funding for said kits to be processed. I am willing to offer more funding through federal grants to these precincts so these long backlogs can finally be tested, and the victims of these crimes can get the justice they deserve. To ensure this money is used to test these rape kits, I will work with Congress to pass a law into action that will give precincts a time constraint in which they must have these kits tested, most likely within 72 hours. By having this deadline set into place, as well as the money to fund said testing, this national backlog will gradually dwindle down. This justice is owed to the survivors of these vicious assaults.

Some victims, however, cannot be given the justice they deserve. A recent influx of mass shootings have killed 380 American citizens and left hundreds of families in mourning over their lost loved ones. I am not going to say that any one of the perpetrators of the 294 mass shootings in the past year killed because they were lonely, lost outsiders. These killers were not in the right mind, no, but mental health is not to blame. What is to blame is American gun laws. These men were able to commit these heinous crimes because of how accessible guns are in this country. How do we stop this? We restrict and complicate. If we are to ensure the safety of the American public, we must ensure that only those who are specifically trained to use a gun, those who are able to handle one and not go awry, are allowed to carry one. Police officers and military personnel should be the only ones to be able to carry handguns at all times for their jobs. Rifles shall be heavily restricted as well, only distributed to those who undergo a complicated vetting process, as to ensure that they will not become the next person to kill innocent bystanders. I just want the American public to be safe. I do not want any more men, women and children to be victims of these preventable crimes. I only wish the best for us. Thank you.