By Skylar Rispens

SSHS government students see their coursework in action


Photo provided by Trace Stone

The Seeley-Swan High School U.S. Government class poses with Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney at the Capitol Building in Helena.

SEELEY LAKE – Seniors in the U.S. Government class at Seeley-Swan High School recently traveled to Helena to see the legislature and to Missoula to watch the judicial processes in action.

While touring the Capitol, students observed floor action in the Montana Senate, and met with Representative Mike Hopkins, R-House District 92 and Senator Sue Malek, D- Senate District 46 to better understand the legislative process. Students also met with Gov. Steve Bullock.

A week later, students traveled to Missoula to observe a criminal sentencing hearing in Federal court and discussed the criminal justice system with Judge Dana Christensen and Clerk of Court Tyler Gilman.

The case students saw in Federal court was of meth possession of over 50 grams with intent to sell. This usually deems a 10-year mandatory sentence. However, the defendant qualified for a "safety valve" due to factors including no criminal history and no weapon associated with the crime. According to SSHS U.S. Government teacher Trace Stone most students agreed with the sentence.


"I'm very proud of the level of interest and maturity that my students showed," wrote Stone in an email to the Pathfinder. "They asked substantive questions, offered insightful comments when we debriefed, and hopefully gained an appreciation of how well-meaning citizens and officials navigate the difficult processes of making policy and applying the rule of law."

Once the students returned home, they responded to questions about their experiences.

Q: Tell me about the experience, were they the same/different than you expected?

A: "During the Capitol visit I learned a lot about the whole dynamic of Montana's government. I didn't quite realize how many legislators worked in the capitol building until you see them all in one room. I didn't expect them to move so quickly through the bills," said Braxson Crum.

A: "The sentencing was highly different from what I had expected. I was expecting to be in a much larger courtroom, and the judge to be harsher on the defendant, considering the amount of meth she had possessed. I was impressed with the judge's understanding of her case and her life, and I believe his ruling was fair," said Lily Mercer.

Q: What did you learn about the legislative session or about the courts and why was it impactful?

A: "I learned that there is a very real human aspect to both the legislature and the courts, instead of the almost mechanical bureaucracy that everyone expects. Judges can exercise discretion based on someone's behavior, and an individual can have an effect on the law making process of the state," said Nicole Williams.

Q: Will this experience help you be more engaged in government, why or why not?

A: "I think that this experience will help me be more engaged in government because it shows the importance of being involved and informed with what is going on in the world outside of your life," said Hunter Shelmerdine.

A: "No, not really, because I don't feel any more inclined to participate than I did before. I do know a little more about the processes than I did before which could end up being helpful," said Jory Towe.

Q: Tell me about something you learned from the Capitol visit?

A: "The [legislative] session was really interesting. You could definitely see conflict on party lines even in our state senate. I learned a ton about what the governor and lieutenant governor do," said James Webb.

Q: Do you feel citizens should be more involved in our local, county and state governments? Why or why not? How do you feel concerned citizens can get involved?

A: "Yes, I think that everyone should be more involved in our government locally and otherwise. We are very fortunate to live in a place that we can express our opinions and be involved in our government and we should take advantage of this privilege. Every individual's involvement is important and makes a difference," said Amanda Thomas. Students that responded to this question agreed with Thomas' sentiment about citizens involvement in government.

Q: Aside from the individual case, what impressions did the sentencing experience leave you with? What did you learn about the criminal justice system?

A: "It showed that the judge was more concerned with the rehabilitation and making sure the woman was getting back on the right path rather than putting her in prison where she might not ever have a chance to change," said Autumn Morse. Most students found the sentencing to be a unique experience in terms of the judge's discretion.

Q: Anything else?

A: "The governor is a cool guy and I think that at the end of the day we forget that aside from political views and positions everyone, even people who work for the government, are just people trying to do what they think is right," said Ashley Miller.

Photo provided by Trace Stone

Students observed floor action in the Montana Senate and had the opportunity to visit with the local House representative Mike Hopkins and local Senator Sue Malek. Many were surprised how formal it was and how quickly legislators move through bills on the floor.


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