The following ran on the Dallas Morning News Texas Death Penalty Blog on Feb. 13, 2012. SMU graduate student Lauren Zielinski commented in this story.
February 23, 2012
The following is a guest blog post by Brian Jenkins of Braintrack.com.
Is the death penalty right or wrong? The question has, of course, inspired many heated debates in Texas and in other states. College campuses are places where young people begin to develop and voice their passions regarding highly contentious issues like this. So what do Texas college students think about capitol punishment?
Kristin Houle, director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), told me, "The death penalty is particularly a prominent issue on campuses in San Antonio where TCADP has been working closely with students and faculty at a number of institutions, including Trinity University, St. Mary's University, Our Lady of the Lake University, UTSA, and University of Incarnate Word."
Kristin also mentioned that students and faculty at these institutions have been deeply involved in the planning and promotion of Religious Leaders Dialogue on the Death Penalty. There has also been student-led activities, including debates, vigils and panel discussions, at these campuses. "Smaller, religious-based institutions or religious-based student groups, particularly those affiliated with the Catholic Church, have been most active on the death penalty issue," she said. Kristin also believes Southern Methodist University (SMU) is perhaps the most active campus regarding the death penalty issue through its Human Rights Program. Kristin also stated that at public institutions, student chapters of Amnesty International tend to be the most active on the death penalty issue."
Lauren Zielinski, a postgraduate student at SMU and the chair of the TCADP's Civic Outreach Committee in Dallas, recently discussed the death penalty issue with friends from the University of Texas at Dallas and SMU. Lauren believes, in general, that the death penalty is not a high priority issue among Texas college students. She said, "we are too concerned with student debt, finding a job after graduation, and other economic issues." However, she did mention that at some college campuses it is one of the bigger social issues.
In addition, Lauren believes the death penalty is more of a priority to African-American, Hispanic, and liberal college students. However, she has noticed the issue is growing in importance among conservatives.
Below is the transcript of my email interview with Lauren, which I found very interesting:
Brian: In general, is there a difference in attitudes about the death penalty among Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic students?
Lauren: There seems to be an overwhelming difference in attitudes. Caucasians are still less concerned with the issue of the death penalty, but it appears the gap is decreasing. More and more younger people are well aware of the issues surrounding the death penalty, such as wrongful conviction. Many Hispanics and African-Americans are well aware that it is racist.
Brian: Are there any Texas college campuses where the death penalty is a bigger issue than it is at others?
Lauren: There are always speakers or events on campus (SMU at Dallas) having a discussion about the death penalty. I would say SMU stands apart from most other Texas college campuses where the death penalty is definitely in the top 10 list of social issues needing to be addressed.
Brian: Do a lot of students change their attitudes about the death penalty after attending college for a while?
Lauren: Only if they spend time studying the issue.
Brian: Do many Texas college students believe the reputation of Texas is harmed by being the #1 state for executions?
Lauren: I don't think so. It appears that most students, like most residents of Texas, walk around not even thinking about the death penalty.
Sheila Castle, a senior at Trinity University in San Antonio, told me, "As a whole, I believe college students highly value reliable statistics. To that end, I have seen some other students change their opinion on the DP after hearing information on the subject and learning about its ineffectiveness. From my experience, students who are highly religious and/or spiritual are more likely than many others to take an interest and oppose the death penalty."
Several students, including Lavinia Bendandi, another Trinity University student and an intern with the Bexar County TCADP campaign, told me that Catholic students are typically against the death penalty. She also believes it's more likely a significant issue with students taking classes in politics, international relations, and similar classes.
Kristine Brown is a junior at St. Mary's University in San Antonio and also works for the Bexar County TCADP. She mentioned, "After being educated on the specifics regarding the death penalty, such as statistics, cost-benefit analysis, and implications, I had to change my mind, as did my friends." Kristine actually wrote a pro death penalty essay in high school.
In general, the Texas college students who responded to my questions don't believe the death penalty is a high priority issue with the majority of Texas college students. They believe it becomes a significant issue if it affects students personally or if they study the death penalty in classes. Several of the students stated they know Texas college students who were in favor of the death penalty but changed their minds after studying the subject at school.
Brian Jenkins writes about a variety of topics related to the college experience for BrainTrack. Brian can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.