RALEIGH — A quartet of 13-year-old documentarians is out to educate their classmates and the nation about North Carolina’s former eugenics program that sterilized people not deemed fit to have children.
The eighth-graders from Carnage Middle School in Raleigh will represent North Carolina in the National History Day contest after capturing a first-place prize for their documentary “Eugenics: North Carolina’s Emerging Secret.” The 10-minute documentary comes as state lawmakers are grappling with whether to compensate the living survivors of a program that involuntarily sterilized thousands of people from 1929 to 1974.
State Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, who was interviewed by the students on Tuesday, told them that members of General Assembly would benefit from seeing their documentary.
“What you’ve produced would be very instructive viewing,” Blue said.
The Carnage team consists of Viraj Rapolu, Raaj Pyada, Nimit Desai and Justin Mott. Their adviser is social studies teacher Cynthia Church.
The other Triangle students going to the national competition are Rachel Schwitzgebel from St. Mary’s School in Raleigh and Grace Miller and Maggie Miller, a pair of home-schooled students from Wake Forest.
A second Carnage team barely missed qualifying with their documentary looking at whether the Wake County school system may be resegregating now that it’s dropped the policy of busing students for socioeconomic diversity.
The Carnage team came up with the idea of their winning project in February after Pyada heard a National Public Radio story about North Carolina’s eugenics program. The team has spent four to six hours a day working on the project, first researching the sterilization program and then interviewing people.
The students learned how more than 7,600 people received surgeries that left them unable to reproduce, though some chose to be sterilized as a form of birth control.
“I couldn’t believe they didn’t give them anesthesia when they did it,” said Desai.
In January, Gov. Bev Perdue’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force recommended a tax-free lump sum payment of $50,000 to living victims and those who were alive when the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation verified them as victims. Perdue has included $10.3 million in her state budget proposal to carry out the task force recommendations.
The students asked Blue, a supporter of providing compensation to sterilization victims, whether he thought legislators would agree to the funding this year
“You fund the things that are important,” Blue answered.
After winning the state competition in April, the team has been busy updating the documentary and raising the $3,500 needed to pay for the trip in June to Maryland for the competition. Blue said he would ask Perdue to talk with the students.
The students are also hoping to interview sterilization victims and Lt. Governor Walter Dalton, now the Democratic nominee for governor.
The students hope to eventually post the documentary online. But Church said the students already have had an impact at Carnage, where other teachers are having their classes learn about the sterilization program.
“They don’t realize how much they’ve done to educate people about it,” Church said.