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Springville teacher interviews secretary of state on Google+ Hangout

FACE TO FACE — Springville Middle School teacher Drew Beiter interviews U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a Sept. 10 Google+ Hangout. Photo from YouTube.

SPRINGVILLE — Teacher Andrew Beiter asked the question, but it was a group of Springville eighth-graders holding the secretary of state’s feet to the fire.

Beiter, a social studies teacher at Springville Middle School, was invited to participate in a Google+ Hangout – a video conference broadcast on the Web – to ask Secretary of State John Kerry questions regarding U.S. involvement in Syria. The Sept. 10 session, which began at 2 p.m. and lasted for about half an hour, was hosted by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Lara Setrakian, co-founder of Syria Deeply, a website focused on the Syria conflict.

Beiter’s first question came from students of fellow Springville teacher Joe Karb, which he prefaced: “As you know, students and younger adolescents have a habit of sometimes asking questions that are somewhat obvious in nature, that go right to the core of the matter.”

And it did.

Beiter asked Kerry, “While everyone gets the major issues associated with the use of chemical weapons, why is it that there’s such a concern now and not for the past year and a half, in which the death toll has gone to six figures?”

Kerry answered: “We are deeply concerned about the overall loss of life in Syria,” and that the chemical attacks on Aug. 21, carried out by Bashar Assad’s regime on the Syrian people, represented “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” leading President Obama to decide “that it needed a response from the world, because chemical weapons were suddenly being used as a tactical weapon in a civil war, and any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.”

Beiter’s own work focuses on just the sort of human rights concerns currently at issue in Syria. Among his many extracurricular roles, Beiter is a regional education coordinator for the U.S. Holocaust Museum and founder of the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, a 10-day program that seeks to educate students on various international conflict and human rights issues.

In 2012, the institute partnered with David Crane, Syracuse University law professor and former war crimes prosecutor, to start the IAmSyria campaign, which, according to its mission statement on IAmSyria.org, is “a non-profit media-based campaign that seeks to educate the world of the Syrian Conflict.”

It is that work that brought Beiter to the attention of Setrakian, who invited him to participate in the Hangout. During the meeting, which Setrakian called an “open-source conversation,” Kerry fielded questions gathered from the Google+ events page where the hangout appeared, as well as those present.

Beiter’s second question, from colleague Cathleen Cadigan, a Holocaust studies teacher from Texas, sought Kerry’s insights on the lack of U.N. involvement in Syria.

“Why, in your opinion,” Beiter asked Kerry, “is the U.N. so visibly absent on this issue?”

Kerry blamed China and Russia. “They have blocked us from condemning even the generic use of chemical weapons, let alone pointing the finger of blame at somebody, just the generic use. So, we’ve been blocked by, particularly, the Russians, who up until now have been the principal supporters of the Assad regime, together with Hezbollah and Iran.”

Beiter said he was happy with the depth of Kerry’s answers, though he wishes he had had more time to talk with the secretary of state. Even so, Beiter said he respects Kerry for participating in the discussion.

“I’m happy with his responses. My only regret is that we didn’t have longer to explore them,” said Beiter.

Back in Springville, during the Sept. 10 school board meeting, Superintendent Paul Connelly lauded Beiter’s interview, and went on to praise both Beiter and Karb for their efforts in the district.

“That’s pretty prestigious, that one of our teachers was there with the secretary of state,” he said. “And both Drew and Joe Karb [are] spearheading a ‘curriculum for humanity’ with regard to social studies throughout the state, so that’s pretty impressive.”

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