By Alan Gionet

DENVER (CBS4)– You’d expect a lot of nervousness as high school students get ready for a half hour in the bright lights of a television studio.

“A little bit,” says Jess Miller, a senior at Denver’s East High.

“For the past few weeks I’ve been preparing a lot,” says Shrushti Manikandan, a senior at Cherry Creek High.

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Jess Miller (credit: CBS)

They are semi-finalists in the Colorado Public Television program, “Both Sides of the Story.” They are also two of the top debaters in Colorado, picked by their coaches to do battle on the airwaves over the state’s biggest issues.

“It’s that lack of cynicism and frankly that lack of tribalism,” says the show’s creator, Dominic Dezzutti host, and producer of “Colorado Inside Out” on CPT12 as well as a political analyst on the election series “Colorado Decides,” co-produced with CBS4.

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Dominic Dezzutti and Eric Sondermann (credit: CBS)

“These students are going to compete fiercely in a debate and then afterwards shake hands and have things in common.”

Dezzutti sits through political arguments and talking points all the time.

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(credit: CBS)

“It is a not so subtle hint to all of our viewers that here come these talented 16, 17, 18-year-olds from high school prepared to argue both sides because they looked at both sides. And I think that is such an important thing for all of us to do.”

The show features Dezzutti as part of a panel of judges. This program he is joined by political writer and analyst Eric Sondermann.

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Shrushti Manikandan (credit: CBS)

“This is pure argument, but it’s by people who are passionate and who’ve studied it and aren’t just reciting talking points,” says Sondermann.

CBS4’s Alan Gionet acts as host. Much like high school debate there are pro and con sides. The students may find themselves arguing for a side they don’t personally agree with. But that is the intellectual exercise of debate. They spend weeks researching the topics and have at it for two or three minutes at a time to make their case, then to ask pointed questions of their opponent.

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Jess Miller (credit: CBS)

Jess and Shrushti were debating whether there should be safe injection sites in Colorado to address the heroin overdose crisis. And we knew it was going to be a good one. They had both reached the semi-finals by slicing through the arguments of their opponents in previous shows. Their research was top notch.

Shrushti had the affirmative,“The reason we don’t have enough accessibility for people who are current addicts is because we don’t have enough locations and facilities and treatments and education programs and such. But by passing this resolution we are fixing that problem.”

Jess countered with opposition to safe injection sites, “Examination of the eight best studies to date on safe injection sites shows that they were found to have no effect on overdose mortality and that they had a significant unfavorable result in relation to problematic heroin use.”

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(credit: CBS)

The judges chimed in.

“Does society have a legitimate interest in saying no we are not going to endorse that?” Sondermann pointedly asked Shrushti.“

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Eric Sondermann (credit: CBS)

“Yes, on the surface level it may seem that we are promoting heroin usage,” she answered, “But what we are doing is getting these addicts a safe way to use heroin and ultimately get off of their addictions.”

“Is solving this problem the government’s job in Colorado?” Dezzutti asked.

“I would say that instead of spending resources on safe injection sites we should be converting those resources to training which we simply don’t have enough of and getting more naloxone out there,” Jess replied.

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(credit: CBS)

“We know we can let them have it. And we don’t hold back. I make sure all the judges know,” said Dezzutti after the show.

Everyone knew it was a great one. The students, the judges, the host, all learned more about the issue.

“Often in debate we have to argue against what we feel,” said Jess. “And in this debate that was the case.”

“Even though personally I was a little bit leaning towards negative, I think a lot of the research gave me a lot of ideas for reasonable arguments on both sides,” said Shrushit. “Ultimately I was ready to argue either side.”

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(credit: CBS)

Jess added, “That’s a great skill that debate has taught me that a lot of times there’s a middle ground that we don’t even know. We’re on opposing sides but I think something in politics and just in general with disagreements we need to talk through the issues, talk through the pros and cons, weight them and come up the solutions.”

“Without animosity in a civil way. What a novel idea these days,” said Sondermann.

“Maybe it can or can’t be out there in the real world but at least for a half an hour in here, we find our utopia,” smiled Dezzutti.

Watch Both Sides of the Story on CPT12 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12.

Alan Gionet is anchor of CBS4 This Morning and reports on a wide variety of issues and “Good Question” stories. He started at CBS4 in 1994. Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanGTV or on Facebook.

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