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Scandal pushes pages out of the background

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(CNN) -- Congressional pages have been in the background on Capitol Hill for 177 years, but the program -- which gives high school students a chance to work closely with lawmakers -- rarely gets much attention unless there's a scandal.

Pages work long days scurrying around delivering messages, answering phones and running errands for lawmakers. They also have to squeeze in their school work in classes at the Library of Congress.

The program made unwelcome headlines in the 1980s after two congressmen were punished for sexual misconduct involving pages, and it is back in the spotlight following allegations that a Florida congressman sent lurid messages to a 16-year-old boy.

Former page Samuel Burke, now 20, said being part of the program was a life-changing experience for him.

"I have never had a better opportunity than being a page and getting to be on the floor of the House every single day," Burke said. (Watch former pages describe their experiences -- 2:11)

He said that pages typically spend almost all of their time around lawmakers when Congress is in session.

Luke Moses, another former page, says he still keeps in touch with Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia.

"She was very kind to me and we remain close today," Moses said. "She took me to briefings and lunches."

Burke said he delivered a few papers to former Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned over allegations that he sent inappropriate e-mails and instant messages to teens who were serving or had served as pages. (Full story)

Burke said he did not really know Foley and had not heard much about him.

"I was unaware of anything specific about him, but I can tell you that most of the Congress people are very generous to the pages," he said. "They might bring you extra food, cookies, attend the page graduation."

Rules tightened in 1983

House pages are supervised by the clerk's office and the Page Board, which has two Republican members and a Democrat as well as the clerk and sergeant at arms of the House, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The rules were tightened in 1983 after two congressmen were censured for sexual misconduct involving pages.

The age limit was raised to 16 and pages now live in a dormitory near the Capitol. Boys and girls are housed on separate floors.

"You have to go through a metal detector to get into the dorm every day, you are only allowed out with a buddy," Moses said.

Kara Frank, a page in 1999, said there also were people looking out for the pages while they were working.

"There are definitely people on the House floor, especially in the cloak room, that definitely overlooked the interactions between congressmen and congresswomen and pages and they were sort of there to make sure no lines were crossed," she said.

Burke said he was surprised by the scandal because he never saw a member of Congress act inappropriately with a page.

"On the other hand, it doesn't surprise me because I know that we had a lot of access, that there was always room for something like this -- for something like that to happen because we were always interacting with the congressmen, he said.

Frank said lawmakers should do more to watch over the pages, especially since many, like her, were away from home for the first time.

"I definitely think more precautions should be taken and things should be monitored because you know you're a minor, you're 16 and you're still a kid," she said.

Burke has kept in touch with his fellow pages and said most are shocked and sad about the current scandal

"People are really worried that someone is going to want to ax this program," he said.

Burke said he hopes that other students will get to experience what it's like to be a page.

"It's the most amazing opportunity," he said.

CNN's Gary Nurenberg contributed to this report.

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