As legislative deadlines loomed, students lobbied lawmakers from afar
Jennifer Haber was on a mission.
Cell phone in hand, the senior at Coronado High School called Sen. Dallas Harris’ office. Haber wanted to chat about Assembly Bill 295, a measure co-sponsored by Harris that would have created a comprehensive sex-education curriculum. Staff said Harris was working on Senate bills. Undeterred, Haber next dialed the office of Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.
“Is there anything I can do to support the bill besides testifying before it goes to committee?” she asked a staff member.
A few nods and pleasantries later, Haber ended the call. But her work wasn’t complete. She had been advised to contact the lawmaker representing her district and share her support of AB295, which died a day later in the Legislature. Before the bill met its demise, though, Haber looked up her lawmaker on her quest to support it.
Students from various high schools surrounded her, buried behind laptops as they wrote lawmakers or prepared testimony for upcoming legislative hearings. They’re part of the Student Legislative Working Group — a newly created organization designed to get teens civically engaged.
“We wanted to make sure that they had free voice,” said Anna Slighting, a Clark County School District teacher who spearheaded the working group. “We did not want them to feel we were influencing them at all on their opinions.”
The group met for a third and final time Wednesday afternoon. They’ve spent the last few weeks learning how the legislative process works, how to navigate a bill-tracking website and how they can add their voice to the mix.
About 20 students from nine different Clark County high schools participated, Slighting said. While the number may seem small — the school district enrolls roughly 320,000 students — it’s a start. As members of Generation Z, most of these students can’t even cast a ballot yet, but that doesn’t mean they have to stay silent as legislators craft laws seven-some hours north in Carson City.
Emily Little, a senior at Shadow Ridge High School, spent Wednesday afternoon writing a letter to Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, advocating for the passage of Senate Bill 193, which would fund education programs pertaining to history, law and civics. As a soon-to-be voter, Little said it’s her civic duty to be involved in the process.
“I’m entering society,” she said. “I have to know how to be a part of my government and that it’s important that we participate in our government.”
Slighting said she senses more civic interest among students, perhaps buoyed by their peers nationwide who started school safety conversations after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting last year.
“Many of these students have seen the success of students in Florida and other places across the country, and they are starting to realize they have a place at the table,” she said. “They just need some of us adults and educators to kind of pass the baton over to them.”
Legislative participation, especially for Clark County students, isn’t necessarily easy. The sheer distance between Las Vegas and Carson City makes it difficult, as do hearings that occur during school hours. But it’s not impossible.
Leonardo Benavides, a coordinator within the school district’s government relations team, said several student groups from Clark County have visited the Legislature this year. Other students have testified from the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas, and a group from Leaders in Training (LIT) — a nonprofit that helps students access college — is traveling to the state capital during spring break next week.
Fifteen schools in the Washoe County School District have either taken a trip to Carson City this year or plan to take one, according to information provided by the district. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Heidi Gansert and Assemblyman Skip Daly, have offered to use campaign funds to cover transportation costs for students, district officials said.
School leaders say student involvement makes a difference.
“The lawmakers see the same people every day,” Benavides said. “When they see the actual people affected by it, I think they take note of it.”
The experience can leave a lasting impression on students as well.
Haber visited Carson City last month during Children’s Week at the Legislature. She lobbied lawmakers on bills regarding comprehensive sex education, lead testing in children, gun background checks and taxes on diapers.
Now, Haber has a spreadsheet with bills she’s tracking and a new career goal — to become a lobbyist. She plans to attend UNLV next year and likely major in political science.
“This is what I want to do,” Haber recalled thinking while in Carson City. “This is so cool.”