High school students gather at Arizona Capitol to debate and vote on bills

(Nicole Neri/DD)

Students from central, northern and southern Arizona met at the Arizona Capitol to debate and vote on 73 student-drafted bills that addressed education, gun safety and LGBTQ issues during a model legislature over the weekend.

More than 150 high school students participated in the Youth and Government program sponsored by the YMCA.

“Our goal is to truly empower these students to refine their voice, their opinions and teach them how to listen compassionately and empathetically to the other side,” said Jenna Cooper, executive director of Youth Development with Valley of the Sun YMCA.

The mock legislature lasted three days and featured different political events such as elections and sessions trying to pass bills in the House of Representatives.

Students traveled to the capitol from all over the state for the event.

“We have students from Yuma, Flagstaff, Tucson and Maricopa County here this weekend,” Cooper said.

Cooper said the students start writing their bills as early as August and learn various details when writing them such as how the bills become law, where the money will come from to support their bill and conduct research on their bill.

The program, which operates in 32 states and Washington D.C., also allows students to see how politics operate outside of Arizona.

ASU Prep senior Sarah Nelson was elected governor at the 2018 Youth and Government program to represent the state of Arizona in Washington D.C.

“I was able to go to D.C. and meet with all the other governors and talk to some very important people there,” Nelson said.

Nelson said her main goals for the 2019 Youth and Government program were to build a strong community and make sure everyone feels included.

“There’s students from every socioeconomic class, every background here. So as governor I’m trying to help them all come together, to become friends with one another and learn their perspectives,” Nelson said.

She also said there are opportunities to get involved for students who aren’t as interested in politics.

“This program has everything for everyone,” she said. “If you’re really into acting, you can get into the court program. If you’re really into writing you can be a part of the press.”

Catherine Oda, a homeschool student from Tucson, Arizona, was the first student at this year’s conference to get her bill passed and signed by Nelson.

Oda’s mock bill, House Bill 222, focused on compensating those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

After the bill was passed, it will be sent to Governor Doug Ducey for him to see.

“I would really encourage all youth to get involved (in the program),” Cooper said. “In general I’m just really interested in prisons and this is something I think should happen.”

Youth and Government program at YMCA’s hosts delegation meetings year round open to all students ages 12 to 18.

“We’re passionately training the next generation of civic leaders,” Cooper said.

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