Report from Montpelier: Students in the Statehouse

Shelburne Community School eighth grader Peter Antinozzi of Shelburne kicks off his duties as Legislative Page by posing for a photo with State representatives Joan Lenes and Kate Webb last week at the Statehouse.
Shelburne Community School eighth grader Peter Antinozzi of Shelburne kicks off his duties as Legislative Page by posing for a photo with State representatives Joan Lenes and Kate Webb last week at the Statehouse.

By Rep. Kate Webb

One of the more inspiring aspects of working in the legislature, is engaging with students who visit. Some Vermonters complain that we shouldn’t be “wasting our time” on issues brought to us by students. Given that these students are developing a sense of civic engagement and will be voters in less than a decade, I find this time very well spent. With 14 committees in the House and 11 in the Senate, a committee or two taking formal testimony on an issue does very little to slow the process and a great deal in engaging our youth. A few examples:

Windsor County students, wanting to have an impact on youthful offenders, helped drive legislation that created the Windsor Youth Court. This program is designed to give youthful offenders the opportunity to accept responsibility for their behavior, make amends to victims, and develop a long-term sense of civic responsibility.

In 2007, an 18-year-old Swanton high school graduate died in a car accident caused by a three-time DUI driver going the wrong way on I-89. Working with their legislators, students and family rallied to create “Nick’s Law,” stiffening drunk driving laws for repeat offenders. Finally when the bill was signed into law in 2011, the students learned to engage in the legislative process, and found perseverance pays off.

Most newsworthy this year are one bill from Lyndonville and one from Shelburne.

An 8th grader with a new penchant for Latin contacted her senator to ask that we join 22 other states and add a Latin motto to our Englsh “Freedom and Unity.” Working with her Latin teacher, she offered: Stella quarta decima fulgeat meaning “may the fourteenth star shine bright.” Senator Joe Benning (R), sponsor who worked with the student, thought the bill harmless enough, although he had expected some ribbing from colleagues. He said, however, he had not anticipated the “vitriolic verbal assault from those who don’t know the difference between the Classics and illegal immigrants from South America.” This actually turned into a broader lesson on ignorance, bigotry, and helping the now ninth grader learn to respond with “fortitude and grace.” It is also likely an opportunity to learn to think before posting. For a few choice responses go here: http://thevpo.org/2015/01/19/no-good-deed-goes-unpunished/. This motto was signed into law last week.

This week, seventh graders from the Renaissance School joined Shelburne residents Ashley Prout McAvey and Laurel Neme to speak for elephants facing agonizing death and extinction at the hands of ivory poachers. Well prepared, the students submitted letters citing research and opinion to extend the federal interstate commerce ban on the sale of ivory, to include ban on sales within the state as well. One student spoke for the class, reading her letter and standing up to the pressure of questions from the legislators.

And finally, I have had the pleasure of watching our own eighth-grader Peter Antonozzi step into the role of Legislative Page this week. Antonozzi watched the final debate on the teacher strike bill as well as a very moving session on JR 8, a resolution seeking public awareness, training, and support to address the alarming suicide rate among our returning military.

Although the Agriculture Committee took an hour to hear from students proposing we name the Gilfeather turnip the state vegetable, I doubt this will get any more attention.

Please feel free to contact me by email, kwebb@leg.state.vt.us, phone or text: (802) 233-7798. The session is anticipated to end the second week in May.