St. Vincent High School senior Laynie Stephens. Press Democrat photo by Jeff Kan Lee


Laynie Stephens didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for debate in her freshman year at St. Vincent High School in Petaluma.
“I didn’t know much about it, but I thought it would be interesting,” she said.
Four years later, she’s headed to the high school debate “tournament of champions” at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
It’s a first for St. Vincent, where formal argument is a passion. About 80 of the school’s 350 students take part in debate, a high number for such a small school.
The May tournament in Kentucky attracts the best high school debate teams in the country.
“It’s the Super Bowl of debate,” said St. Vincent debate coach Laila McClay.
Laynie, 17, and partner James Fidler are the school’s varsity debate team. They qualified for the national tournament after top finishes at contests in Huntington Beach and New York.
In recent years, she’s competed in Washington, Boston, Minnesota and elsewhere. She enjoys the competition and travel, Laynie said.
“I really fell in love with it,” she said.
Debate has taught her much, Laynie said. “It really prepared me for the real world,” she said. “It’s taught me a lot about staying focused, being organized, trying your hardest and not giving up.”
In Kentucky, she’ll debate on the subject of space exploration. She’s doing lots of research in preparation.
Debaters must be ready to argue both sides of an issue and counter the arguments of opposing teams.
“It’s always hard when you don’t know what the other team is going to say,” she said.
McClay said Laynie is a standout in more than just debate.
“She’s one of the brightest and most genuine students I’ve had the opportunity to teach,” McClay said. “She has a great head on her shoulders, and she works so hard.”
Laynie recently was accepted to Stanford University, where she’ll major in philosophy. She wants someday to attend law school.
Meanwhile, she’s serving in student leadership at St. Vincent, working part time at the Gap outlet store in Petaluma and volunteering at Redwood Gospel Mission.
Laynie plans to continue her debate career in college.
“It has taught me about finding your passion,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or

Laynie Stephens
Age: 17
Birthplace: Petaluma
Lives with: Mom, Gayle; dad, Ted; older sister Paige
Ambition: To practice law
Quote: Debate “has taught me about finding your passion.”