Snapshot: Colorado Youth Succeed in Writing New Law

September 30, 2013

Moving beyond testifying on legislation to actually writing it.

When Colorado lawmakers are asked to name the most significant issues facing local young people—issues that deserve a policy response—they no longer have to guess.  And local teachers no longer have to guess at how to support young people in crisis.

That’s because in 2012, the 40-member Colorado Youth Advisory Council drafted legislation that was unanimously passed by the state legislature (House Joint Resolution 1004) to reform teacher licensing laws to include suicide awareness prevention training. The resolution also establishes a youth-led working group to reduce suicide rates statewide.

The work began with a survey of over 700 young people to find out which issues mattered most to them. The questions were devised by the Youth Advisory Council members, who then ran them past a local survey expert who was an advisor to the council. More than 70 percent of youth who took the survey said that they were “very concerned” about suicide. They identified it as the number one issue they and their peers face.

At the time, Colorado was among the 10 states with the highest suicide rates in the country. Yet until the Council members undertook this research and drafted the proposed legislation in response, few legislators realized that this issue topped young people’s list of concerns.

“It opened their eyes to the issue,” says Sean Weller, 18, former chair the council. As a result, several suicide-prevention bills were on the docket that session “because we helped more that issue more visible.”

The council members felt that teachers and school staff could be a powerful first line of defense in preventing suicide, so they focused the legislation on the education system rather than the health care system.

Then, the young council members testified in front of state’s House Education Committee. “It was unusual for policymakers to hear about suicide from an educational perspective,” says Weller. The youth shared personal stories and were joined by suicide prevention experts and even a few legislators who shared stories of how suicide had touched their lives.

Initially, some feared the resolution might fall along party lines. But after the hearing, several legislators told council members they were impressed with their knowledge and research. The bill passed unanimously.

“Policymakers are often surprised at how well-versed the youth on the council are on the issues we work on. They can ask a pointed question and we can realistically answer it,” Weller says.

A case in point: Sean Weller says that after he testified on another suicide prevention bill that arose from this work by the council, he was approached by a legislator who seemed skeptical and who asked a specific question about restrictions on and costs to hospitals. “I gave him a response rooted in evidence and research—basically, that hospitals aren’t currently coordinated on this effort and that coordinating them under the bill wouldn’t carry any new costs. It was a technical question and I had the answer for him. His response was, ‘Wow, very impressive,’” Weller says.

"A legislative youth council ... [helps] legislators make better decisions on policies affecting our youth," says state Senator Ellen Roberts, who formed the statewide council in 2008.

Each year, the 40 members of the Youth Advisory Council take a position on about 20 specific pieces of legislation, and testify and advise members about whether those bills should pass.  This resolution was the first piece of legislation that the council drafted itself.

About the Colorado Youth Advisory Council
The Council was established by charter in 2008 to advise the state legislature. It has four formal meetings each season (the Colorado legislature is part-time and only in session from January to May every year). During their October meeting, council members identify the policy priorities for the coming session; during the winter and spring meetings, youth members work with legislators at the capitol. Between meetings, youth members are encouraged to go to the capitol and meet with legislators as often as they’d like.

The members receive comprehensive training on the state lawmaking process, and updates from legislators about big pieces of legislation. Legislators will often sit on on youth council meetings and offer advice on how their colleagues are likely to react to specific proposals and approaches.

The council costs about $35,000 per year to operate; funding comes partly by the state legislature and partly from Civic Canopy, the council's parent nonprofit organization.

 


This snapshot is part of SparkAction's Youth Impact series, short profiles of youth councils and commissions that are influencing local and state policies and practices. SparkAction is producing this series in partnership with the youth-led Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To suggest an impact story, please contact Caitlin Johnson, managing editor, at caitlin@sparkaction.org.

Caitlin Johnson

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