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New Legislation Gives Students Time for Civic Engagement

People at table
Students meet with Gov. Northam and other state leaders in advance of their bill becoming law. (Photo courtesy Virginia Young Democrats Teen Caucus)

A new bill taking effect July 1 will require Virginia schools to grant all middle and high school students one excused absence every year to “engage in a civic event.”

It started with a group of passionate teenagers who wanted to make a 2019 Fairfax County School Board policy the law for all Virginia middle and high school students.

Saehee Perez, chair of the Virginia Young Democrats Teen Caucus and a rising junior at McLean High School in Fairfax County, said the language “civic event” is important – because she says students could use the day to do a wide range of things, not limited to attending a protest or school walk-out.

“You can go to the State Capitol to testify, talk to your board of supervisors, testify in front of your school board, or just get to know your elected officials and how the government runs,” Perez said.

Perez says the goal is for youth voices to be heard and taken seriously, and she hopes the extra day off will help convert students’ internet activism into hands-on advocacy, so lawmakers can hear the voices of youth directly, “instead of reading it from tweets,” she says.

“We're just really trying to eliminate barriers between teens and the political process,” Perez said. “I think it's still a fight right now [for youth voices to be heard.] I can't say with full confidence that every lawmaker has been receptive. Because we have had our fair share of people being condescending.” 

The Teenage Republican Federation of Virginia actually reached out to the Virginia Young Democrats Teen Caucus via Twitter in December 2020 and ended up joining forces to help advocate for the legislation.

“The conversation was really about, we may disagree on many issues, but at the end of the day we can come together and agree that it's important for teens to get involved in their government,” Perez said.

The two groups started talking and planning right before the January 2021 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol – and Brady Hillis, chairman of the Teenage Republican Federation of Virginia and a rising senior in New Kent County, is proud that both groups were able to come together at a particularly polarizing time for the country.

“It was awesome and we’ve made a lot of friendships out of it,” Hillis said. “It allowed us – both groups – to get to know the other side better and understand how to actually affect actual change.”

He says younger generations are seeing more eye to eye on issues of education and the environment, particularly. 

“That is really a big focus for our generation: making sure that there’s still an earth for future generations. And I think that that's a focus for everyone,” Hillis said. 

He plans to use his excused absence next year to work on legislation in January, and hopes school counselors, teachers and administrators will make sure students know that they have the option to take a day off to become more civically engaged.

“There are a lot of times when students don't understand how to get involved, sometimes they need that push to allow them to get involved,” Hillis said.

The bill still does allow school districts the right to ask for advance notice before students use the civic leave and require proof that they were, in fact, doing what they said they were doing.

While the bill garnered bipartisan support from Virginia lawmakers, Hillis said those who were opposed didn’t want a statewide mandate, and  preferred local decision making.