When a reporter for the East Rock Record asked Mayor Toni Harp her thoughts on the anti-vaxxer movement, he got more than a policy answer — he learned about her own childhood, when she battled polio.
The question came from 13-year-old student reporter Dave Cruz (at left in photo). He was one of the nearly 30 student-journalists from the school newspaper armed with notebooks, pens and lots of questions who put Harp in the hot seat Thursday during a press conference in the school library.
Harp is a survivor of childhood polio who contracted the disease at 4. She told Dave that when she hears about the anti-vaccine movement she thinks about all the young people who don’t have polio today because they were vaccinated against the disease.
“I couldn’t walk,” she said. “It also afflicted my lungs. I think people ought to have better info and understand the public value of not having these diseases.” (Click here for a previous story about how she wasn’t expected to walk again and had to use an iron lung.)
Harp said her brother contracted a disease around the same time that left him with permanent intellectual impairment.
“Measles, mumps, and rubella are things you don’t have to have if you’re vaccinated,” she said. “There is no reason for us to go back to young people being sick.”
Dave, who has fielded the question to other candidates, said after the press conference that he didn’t know that the mayor had as a child contracted a disease that has long since been eradicated by vaccination. He said he thinks she could be a voice for encouraging parents to prevent their children from suffering because they weren’t vaccinated.
“I think it would help a lot to have a mayor who has gone through that,” he said.
During the nearly one-hour press conference, reporters quizzed Harp on a range of topics including how she manages the stress of being the city’s top executive, her run for reelection, her thoughts on climate change and the value of student testing. The reporters have already interviewed people who have filed papers to challenge Harp in this year’s election, Justin Elicker and Wendy Hamilton.
Isabel Faustino asked Harp if she considers Elicker a threat. The 11-year-old sixth grader pointed out that Elicker had run well against Harp in their previous matchup.
“I think everyone who runs is a potential threat,” Harp said. “I take every race seriously and he did do very well last time.”
Isabel (pictured above with Dave) said she was “looking for more depth” in Harp’s answer but thought she sufficiently answered the question.
Fifth-grade reporter Jayden Lis (pictured) made his question more personal: Can Harp help his neighborhood?
He lives on Henry Street, where, he said, there’s always a car parked on the sidewalk. He said people tend to think they’re allowed to park there but they’re not and it’s dangerous.
Harp promised Jayden that she’d have her staff check it out.
One hard-charging reporter was 9-year-old Jaden Martinez (pictured). The fourth-grade reporter asked which school is Harp’s favorite. Harp said she doesn’t have a favorite school. They are all important, she diplomatically responded.
Jaden asked whom Harp would pick to replace her as mayor. Harp pointed out that she is still very much hoping to be the next mayor.
The reporter said he was “a little disappointed” in the mayor’s answer.
“She didn’t really answer who she would pick and said she would pick later because she wants to be mayor.”
The East Rock Record Journalism Project is in its sixth year of putting out the news twice a year, with more than 3,500 copies of the paper going out to New Haven schools and the surrounding neighborhoods.
About 35 student journalists get out the paper with the help of Yale University mentors, staffers of the Yale Daily News, a handful of city high schoolers, and the general supervision of veteran journalist Laura Pappano. And Pappano said Thursday that the students came up with their own questions for the mayor and decided on what story ideas to tackle. And like journalists across the world, they’re on a deadline to get out the next edition.
The biggest thing the students learn? “How to ask questions,” Pappano said.
Click the play button below to check out the East Rock Record’s press conference in action.