Lassiter High School senior Jake Hays hoped to speak to the Cobb County Board of Education a few months ago. But after driving more than 30 minutes to the meeting, he discovered he wasn’t allowed.
Students under 18 must have a parent present to address the board in Georgia’s second-largest school district, per a policy dating back to at least 2007.
At 17, Hays needed a parent to accompany him.
“We’re the main stakeholders since we’re the ones who are actually in the education system,” Hays said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We should probably have a say rather than being a bunch of guinea pigs.”
Other metro Atlanta school districts, including those in Clayton, DeKalb, Forsyth, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, do not have similar restrictions for students who wish to speak at meetings.
Hays, a self-described “policy wonk,” had wanted to share his thoughts about student mental health in the district — and score some extra credit in his government class. He returned to a meeting a month later with his parents and more than a dozen classmates to ask for change in another area: the board’s public participation policy.
“Every community’s different and our community, our sense is I think parents would want to know if their child is speaking and what the issue might be,” board member Randy Scamihorn said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The courts have generally leaned toward granting more participation for students, not less, according to Richard T. Griffiths, president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. He said it’s “entirely appropriate” to allow students to speak without a parent present.
“If we want to raise people who will be thoughtful, smart participants in our democracy, we need to be able to have kids participate early in that process,” he said.
That’s what it came down to for Hays and his friends. They were interested in exercising their rights after learning about them in class.
“To hear that he was just turned down immediately was kind of, it felt like it was almost undemocratic,” said Emma Riser, another Lassiter High senior who addressed the board.
The students hope the district will create student advisory councils on topics such as academics, mental health and school district policy. They plan to keep speaking at board meetings and emailing district leaders.
“The more input we can get in the decisions being made at the county level for the students,” Hays said, “the better the system will be and the more the students will thrive.”
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