Colorado youths made a compelling presentation to state legislators on March 16, showing a young generation's attempt to address and mend statewide issues.
The 40 members of the Colorado Youth Advisory Council made their annual policy recommendations to lawmakers.
COYAC was created by the Colorado General Assembly in 2008 to help bring the voice of the state's youths to the Capitol. Members of COYAC represent 35 state Senate districts and five at-large seats.
"It's really, really empowering for students to get a chance to participate in this program," said Juliana Rodriguez, of Lakewood. "Every member of our group has a say on the recommendations we make to the Legislature."
This year's policy priorities focused on K-12 testing, public safety, water and mental health. Students broke into groups to tackle these various topics and then came back together to make recommendations.
Students from the behavioral health committee of COYAC highlighted the widespread presence of depression and suicide in Colorado's youths.
“A lot of kids have trouble dealing with a lot of stress, including myself,” said COYAC member Taylor Kallsen of Centennial. “We wanted to help encourage teachers to know the warning signs of depression, anxiety and different mental disorders that I think a lot of times are overlooked.”
The committee made three detailed recommendations, including: funding measures for mental health, mandating school districts to make Youth Mental Health First Aid available to all educators, and creating a statewide mental health online chat program that is run by mental health professionals and implemented by schools.
The online forum would give students a chance to connect with others who might be experiencing similar feelings, and a chance to reach out to professionals when needed, Rodriguez said.
Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, expressed her support for COYAC and reported she is currently working on legislation that would increase mental health first aid to teachers.
“Please, please, please continue the work you do,” Newell said. “Not only here, but beyond in future years because we need more people like you.”
Many of the topics presented are areas of concern that are being addressed through legislation.
COYAC's water committee tackled issues surrounding the state's most precious resource and recommended that residential properties be allowed to collect rainwater.
A measure was passed last week by the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, sponsored in part by Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, that would allow someone to collect rain water from their roof in up to two rain barrels.
K-12 testing remains a topic of interest for students.
Members from COYAC's K12 standardized testing committee addressed issues that have raised discontent among students and recommended that legislators implement a “State Explore Test” and “State PLAN Test” in lieu of PARCC until Common Core has been fully implemented at the high school level.
“We're not trying to attack Common Core or try to take a stance on it,” said Jackson Chen, a COYAC member from Broomfield. “We're also not trying to attack standardized tests — we're just trying to make them more worthwhile.”
Students would like to see standardized tests that feel a bit more like the state's ACT tests, and still provide paper tests for students who don't take online tests as well, Rodriguez added.
There is some follow-up by the students with the legislators to see what — if any — action has been taken on their recommendations, and to provide an opportunity for the students to stay connected.
"The legislative process can be so foreign to students, but this is a great bridge to the process," Rodriguez said. "Because students had this exposure, many now want to get into politics."